President Santos Has Been at the Helm of Promoting Hemispheric Debate on Alternatives to War on Drugs
Statement from Ethan Nadelmann: President Santos’s Victory Good News for Drug Policy Reform
Yesterday, Colombia re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos, praised for having launched peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), aimed at ending five decades of armed conflict. Since assuming office in 2010, Santos has also become one of the most vocal critics of the war on drugs, and has repeatedly called for a new approach to drug policy.
“President Santos’s victory is good news for drug policy reform prospects in the Americas,” said Ethan Nadelmann. “He’s been a global leader in putting decriminalization, legal regulation and other drug policy alternatives on the agenda. His second term represents a chance, as it did with President Obama, to make good on first term promises to change the way that Colombia and Latin America deal with drugs.”
In 2011, shortly after becoming President, Santos made the boldest remarks on drug policy of any sitting head of state by saying, "A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking… If that means legalising, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it.” In April 2012, President Santos used his platform as host of the Summit of the Americas to invite other regional heads of state to reflect on the war on drugs and to contemplate “the different scenarios and possible alternatives to confront this challenge with more efficiency,” reminding them that “In spite of all the efforts, the illicit drug business is still buoyant, drug addiction in all countries is a serious public health issue, and drug trafficking is still the main provider of funding for violence and terrorism."
The outcome of the Summit was a mandate to the Organization of American States to produce a report on drug policy in the hemisphere. The report was published in May 2013 and included marijuana legalization and broader regulation of drugs as a likely policy alternative in the coming years. President Santos was also pivotal in proposing a high-level United Nations review of drug policy, which will take place in 2016 in a UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs.
Domestically, President Santos created a national Advisory Committee on Drug Policy, which last year issued its first recommendations on approaching drug policy from a public health perspective; however, these reforms have yet to be implemented. And, in a move heavily criticized by Óscar Iván Zuluaga, Santos’s opponent in the Presidential race, Santos’s administration last month came to an agreement with the FARC on drugs and drug trafficking, which included creating a system of crop substitution for those who grow illicit substances; launching a program to prevent drug use from a public health perspective; and prioritizing manual eradication over aerial fumigation.
In recent years, debate and political will for drug policy reform has gained unprecedented global momentum. In 2011, Kofi Annan, George Shultz, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to “break the taboo” on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs – and to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs,” especially marijuana.
Last year, Uruguay followed on the heels of Colorado and Washington State and became the first country to legally regulate marijuana for recreational purposes. On Thursday, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, initiated by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and chaired by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasango, called for drug decriminalization and for treating drug use as a health issue. In the Caribbean, Heads of State of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have mandated that a Regional Commission be set up to evaluate current marijuana policy. And on Friday, the Jamaican Minister of Justice announced that the Jamaican Cabinet had approved a proposal to decriminalize the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and the decriminalization of marijuana use for religious, scientific and medical purposes.