The Summit of the Americas and the Half-Hearted Debate on Drug Legalization in the Hemisphere

The 6th Summit of the Americas, held in Cartagena, Colombia, came to a close on April 15th, 2012 after having brought together 33 heads of state from various nations throughout the Americas with the aim of establishing a “hemispheric agenda” by consensus.  Such an agenda, it was hoped, would be capable of addressing the pressing issues of poverty and inequality, citizen security, access to technology, and responses to natural disasters that affect all nations irrespective of wealth or political systems. The very nature of international gatherings of this sort practically guarantees the desire to claim progress in a particular area is always present.  That is especially the case with the Summit, held as it is only once every three years.  However, it is seldom that these events bear witness to truly controversial proposals that do not have the stamp of approval of the most powerful member nations, even when those proposals directly affect the human rights of the populations in question.  The debut of the issue of drug legalization made sure that this was an exceptional year.

Much talk preceded this Summit not least because some of the most outspoken leaders were not in attendance.  The issue of Cuba’s exclusion appeared to be a factor in all of the decisions.  Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s conspicuous absence was officially owed to his ongoing bout with cancer, but he sent his foreign minister in his stead to press the case for overturning Cuba’s fifty-year exclusion from the Organization of American States (under whose auspices the Summit is held).  Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua decided to bail in favor of a last-minute show of solidarity with Cuba, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador did the same in typical grandiose fashion.  This hand-wringing left host and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in a tight spot, publicly encouraging discussion of the issue but not going so far as to secure final agreement on Cuba’s eventual inclusion in the 2015 Summit to be held in Panama.  In fact, final agreement proved elusive on most big-ticket issues, with the U.S. and Canada opposing Cuba’s inclusion, and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner taking a predictably hard line on her country’s sovereignty over the Falkland Islands – otherwise known as the Malvinas – which have belonged to Britain since 1833.

President Santos projected an equanimous posture in the face of suspicions that the Summit was a failure.  He said with respect to Cuba and the Falklands that “[w]e all knew there would be no agreements here, we knew it from before, so there are no negative surprises here.”[1]  Though true, the contentious nature of this Summit was clear from the lack of a joint declaration upon its conclusion.  This division of opinion was no less evident on the issue of drug legalization.  Recently-elected Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general with ties to the late despotic figure Efraín Ríos Montt, has proven to be an unlikely and outspoken critic of the status quo “war on drugs” led by the United States.  President Pérez stated that “[t]here must be a dialogue over whether we should continue doing the same that we have been doing for the past fifty years to combat drug consumption, production and trafficking, even though we have been unable to eradicate this market.”[2]   A seemingly innocuous proposal – debating a policy that’s a half-century old – the implications for changing the current course are huge.

The degree to which Guatemala and its neighbor to the north, Mexico, have seen their societies torn apart by the scourge of drug trafficking and organized crime almost defies belief.  Since December 2006, when President George W. Bush began exerting pressure on his counterpart Felipe Calderón to employ the Mexican military in the fight against the cartels, an estimated 47,500 people have lost their lives in Mexico alone, a figure (directly from the Mexican government) that only occasionally appears in reports from mainstream U.S. news networks and, when it does, is noticeably devoid of context or any suggestion of U.S. responsibility.[3]  The same can easily be said for other countries.  Incidents of murder in Honduras began to increase in 2005 leading up to the ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.  Today Honduras, following the recent withdrawal of the Peace Corps, tops the list of the world’s most dangerous countries.[4]

The United States has been largely shielded from the blowback occasioned by the war on drugs.  When violence does happen, it is almost entirely confined to the southern side of the border, converting Ciudad Juárez (just across from El Paso, Texas) into one of the most dangerous cities in the world.  Legally speaking, the U.S. has, in effect, “externalized” the incredible human cost of its prohibition regime onto its neighbors to the south, whose weak institutions are incapable of confronting the infinite resources of the cartels in their midst.  Where Latin American politicians cannot be bought, they can often be assassinated with ease, to say nothing of the plight of journalists.[5]  This situation, coupled with widespread geographic ignorance on the part of American society, ensures that American politicians never really have to grapple with the effects of their policies on this issue.  Accountability is absent to such an extent that perhaps only tragedy will result in a true reassessment of priorities.  Mexico and Central America have certainly seen more than their fair share of that and at a level most Americans could never tolerate.

No doubt aware of all of this, U.S. President Barack Obama was nonetheless forced to confront the reality that drug policy discussions broaching the issue of legalization are still taboo in the United States.  This is the case despite the June 2011 report released by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group made up of former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as well as the former leaders of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, among other distinguished statesmen and intellectuals.  The report began thusly: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”[6]  Indeed, only in the fossilized universe of drug policy could such a bold statement be seen as anything other than a clear indication a change in course is welcome and near.  Among the Report’s many recommendations, one is that countries target large-scale traffickers in favor of petty dealers and users.[7]  After all, groups like the FARC in Colombia – who began as “revolutionary” outfits but have become little more than mafias with a penchant for exporting cocaine and inflicting human suffering (à la Ingrid Betancourt) – bear the lion’s share of the culpability for the innumerable national and transnational social problems that arise from the basic fact of their existence.   The Report ultimately went on to conclude that prohibition has caused more harm than good, but it did praise the implementation of alternative sentencing avenues, such as drug courts, for dealing with drug offenses in a manner more consistent with public health imperatives rather than criminal ones.[8]  It is noteworthy that all U.S. states currently follow some variation of that approach.[9]

Most interestingly, though, is that this Report represents the Commission’s high-profile about-face from the ideologies that spawned our earliest international agreements on drug policy.   Beginning with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, the groundwork was firmly in place for an international prohibition regime.  The 1988 United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances went further to include provisions aimed at critical aspects of organized crime including asset seizure[10] and extraditions.[11]  Surely no one is rethinking these protections against the more nefarious features of organized criminality, but the basic assumption that prohibition is the answer to worldwide drug-induced woes is clearly no longer the subject of unanimous agreement.  Accordingly, the Report’s authors sought a conspicuous break with what they termed “drug control imperialism” as practiced by the United States and other powerful, consumer countries when they noted that “[t]he idea that the international drug control system is immutable, and that any amendment – however reasonable or slight – is a threat to the integrity of the entire system, is short-sighted.”[12]  It is quite evident from the Report that flexibility (even “experimentation”) in crafting substance abuse policies across national and cultural borders should be the rule, rather than the exception.[13]

For all the hype, this wisdom has yet to “trickle down,” and the current impasse on drug policy is not yet – strictly speaking – a debate about legalization.  President Pérez and his Central American counterparts, unable to act unilaterally given that they would almost certainly then become narco-states in the tragic mold of Guinea-Bissau, are only left with the option to continue pressing their objections in whatever international fora and media outlets remain available to them.  However, the true irony inherent in this dispute is that the country responsible for creating most of the demand for drugs – the United States – is also saddled with a corporate media superstructure that appears to have abdicated its duty to bring such critical matters to public attention.[14]

In other words, mainstream U.S. media might be a large part of the problem.  For an example of this tendency, one need look no further than the coverage surrounding the Summit itself.  While the American public was mostly oblivious to the Summit’s existence, they couldn’t help but discover that a few ill-fated Secret Service agents cavorted with prostitutes during the trip to Cartagena.[15]   Such a discovery on the part of the media-consuming public was inevitable because the story became the darling of the 24/7 news cycle, and coverage was ubiquitous no matter how rote.  To some extent, regular folks simply prefer sex scandals to policy discussions, but the fact remains that the media, in its functional role as information gatekeeper for the large numbers of Americans who get their news exclusively from television sources, had no interest in taking part in or even facilitating the ongoing substantive debate on drug policy that the Summit laid bare.

The corporate media’s interest, writ large, is to publicize exciting, sensational news in order to sell ad space.  But, by foregoing the opportunity to explore the dramatic repercussions of our war on drugs on our neighbors to the south, the shareholder-driven media likewise gave up the chance to inform the American public that a panoply of voices does in fact exist on this issue.  Perhaps like none other, this policy is not a monolith.  Rather, like any policy, it depends on reliable support and financing to continue.  With polls showing that more than 50% of the U.S. population supports marijuana legalization and even higher numbers consistently decry the failure of the war on drugs, this was a message that deserved to be heard.[16]

Students of politics may marvel at the staying power of certain expensive, destructive, and contradictory policies despite their obvious weaknesses.  Those same cognoscenti will also note that, in the absence of a free and effective media apparatus, the public is essentially deprived of its democratic duty to make critical policy decisions on its own behalf.  Considering the splintering effect occasioned by left-wing demagogues in the U.S.’s own back yard and its corrupting corporate influence at home, we may have to look at the frozen-in-time nature of this debate as symptomatic of a larger malaise afflicting American society (perhaps also seen in widespread voter apathy).  In legal terms, there is no push whatsoever to rescind the weighty provisions of earlier international agreements on narcotic drugs, but this is not a condition sine qua non of success.  What we are instead witnessing is a hemispheric shift in opinion in which North-South agreement is tending to forge ahead despite an unsympathetic media climate.  The desires of eager publics throughout the hemisphere have been excluded from the larger debate just as they have effectively been prevented from knowing how much North-South commonality of viewpoints actually exists on these issues.  The project of furthering this awareness still has quite a ways to go, but the establishment of a legal order aimed at accommodating the full spectrum of voices in the legalization debate would be an ideal development.

Drug cartels are a mortal threat to Latin American democracy, which is to say, American democracy.[17]  And responsible media professionals everywhere are faced with a choice:  honest coverage or the continuation of a 50-year legacy of staying on message.  Our politicians face the same choice.  For its part, the American public also has a critical role to play, but it may not even know it.  Ironically, that was the message this Summit was supposed to communicate to us.


[5] See, e.g., Ret. Gen. Mario Arturo Acosta’s recent killing on April 21, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/21/us-mexico-general-idUSBRE83K03N20120421See also the murder of the prospective governor of Tamaulipas, Rodolfo Torre, in late June 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703964104575334942693439322.html and only a few days later, the killings of Mayor Nicolas Garcia Ambrosio, Council Member Angel Perez Garcia, and Chihuahua Deputy Attorney General Sandra Ivonne Salas Garcia, http://articles.cnn.com/2010-07-01/world/mexico.mayor.killed_1_juarez-cartel-mexican-state-border-state?_s=PM:WORLD

[6] Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (2011), pg. 2.  Available at:  http://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/wp-content/themes/gcdp_v1/pdf/Global_Commission_Report_English.pdf

[7] Id. at 14.

[8] Id. at 16.

[9] National Association of Drug Court Professionalshttp://www.nadcp.org/learn/about-nadcp

[10] Article 5

[11] Article 6

[12] Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy at 8.

[13] See id. at 11.

[14] For more information on the concentration of media ownership in the United States, see, e.g., The Columbia Journalism Review, “Who Owns What?”, at http://www.cjr.org/resources/, and Free Press, “Who Owns the Media?” at http://www.freepress.net/ownership/chart

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