Can drug decriminalisation become mainstream?

The Summit of the Americas is taking place this weekend and for the first time, alternatives to drug prohibition will be under discussion. This will give Latin American leaders the opportunity to discuss alternatives to prohibition with President Obama.

Latin Americans can see the damage caused by prohibition first hand. Prohibition related violence has led to the death of over 50,000 people in Mexico since 2006. Similar stories can be found elsewhere; in Guatemala the murder rate is 42 per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world. Some, such as President Felipe Calderon, have sent in the army to fight the cartels. This has led to a huge loss of life with no end to the violence in sight.

During his election campaign, it appeared as though Perez Molina, the current President of Guatemala, was going to go down this path. Yet once elected, he suddenly argued that the war on drugs has failed and that alternatives such as decriminalisation should be considered: "I think it is important for us to have other alternatives. We have to talk about decriminalization of the production, the transit and, of course, the consumption." – Perez Molina

This is extremely significant because it’s so rare for incumbent leaders to challenge the status quo. Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, believes this is part of a growing trend in Latin America: “Arguments that were articulated just five years ago primarily by intellectuals and activists, and three years ago by former presidents, are now being advanced, with growing sophistication and nuance, by current presidents. Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos and the new president of Guatemala, Perez Molina, are taking the lead. There is now, for the first time, a critical mass of support in the Americas that ensures that this burgeoning debate will no longer be suppressed.” – Ethan Nadelmann

Whilst this is indeed an exciting time to be an advocate of drug policy reform, there are still many obstacles up ahead. Vice President Joe Biden stated that there is “no possibility” of the current administration changing its drug policy. Some might be disheartened by this news, but simply being willing to discuss the issue represents a step in the right direction. For Obama to meet with Latin American leaders to discuss decriminalisation gives it a sense of legitimacy. There may be no chance of it changing the policy of the United States in the short-term, but it’s still an opportunity for the likes of Juan Santos and Perez Molina to plant some seeds in the minds of other Latin American leaders. They’ve taken the difficult first steps and it will now be easier for others to follow them. If more do follow, the American government may have to soften their stance on the issue.