It’s not an everyday event to hear the leader of a country describe the war on drugs as a failure and suggest moving away from the current drug policy.

But this is what Colombian President Gustavo Petro did in Cali on Saturday, September 9, during the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs in front of the representatives of other countries of the region.

Petro suggested forging an alliance among Latin American nations to present a united front in addressing drug trafficking. This strategy involves acknowledging drug consumption as a public health issue rather than relying on what he referred to as an ineffective militarized approach.

“What I propose is to have a different and unified voice that defends our societies, our future, and our history and to stop repeating a failed discourse that has already failed,” he said, emphasizing the need to break away from the failed approach resulted in “immeasurable bloodshed and pain in Latin America.”

The impact of this policy has resulted in the loss of millions of lives in Latin America over the past five decades. In the United States, it led to the imprisonment of millions of people, mainly from Black and Latino communities.

“That is why we will be there tomorrow, to tell the Latin American people that it is time to rebuild illusion and hope. It is not by repeating little wars and wars so bloody and ferocious, so wrong, such as the misnamed war on drugs, looking at drugs as a military problem and not as a health problem in society,” Petro said.

In a joint statement issued during the conference, the participating countries emphasized the necessity of diminishing the demand for illegal drugs through public education and addressing issues like inequality, poverty, limited opportunities, and violence.

Additionally, there was a consensus on the importance of breaking the links between drug and firearms smuggling, transnational organized crime, unlawful logging, human trafficking, migrant smuggling, money laundering, and corruption.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, at the event, emphasized strengthening families, fighting poverty, and promoting crops like corn, beans, cocoa, coffee, fruits, and timber to reduce illicit drug cultivation. He also called for Latin American support in the U.S. fight against fentanyl, citing a moral obligation to address this crisis as a pandemic and highlighting the paramount human right: the right to life.

The proposal for President Petro’s shift in policy to combat illicit drug trafficking without resorting to the repressive strategy of the war on drugs isn’t unexpected.

Since he became President in 2022, Petro has identified the potential for legalizing marijuana in Colombia. He also stated that ending the drug war would be a key focus of his administration, highlighting the need to recognize the undeniable failure of the war on drugs.

This approach was undertaken earlier this year through a bill aimed at legalizing adult-use cannabis in the country. However, this attempt failed with a negative vote in the Senate.

Over the years, Latin American countries have pursued similar policies in their efforts to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes.

Uruguay not only became the world’s first country to legalize cannabis in 2013 but also a pioneer in Latin America.

Mexico ultimately legalized cannabis in 2021, although its legal status remains complex due to the absence of a comprehensive regulatory framework regulating its use.

Other Latin American nations have varying legislation on cannabis, with the majority legalizing it for medical purposes and a few also decriminalizing its recreational use.

As for other drugs, Latin American countries have continued their efforts to crack down on organized crime groups but with limited success.

Since the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs introduced a worldwide ban on drugs to fight the “serious evil” of drug addiction, the costs of this prohibition have been significant. These costs include widespread unlawful killings, insecurity in communities, negative health consequences, the forced movement of low-income individuals, entrenched high-level corruption, and the erosion of trust in government institutions.

This approach has had counterproductive outcomes, resulting in millions of deaths and billions of dollars spent. For example, the United States alone has spent over $1 trillion on this effort in the span of more than 50 years.

Hence, Petro’s proposal arrives at a time when Latin American countries grapple with ongoing violence caused by drug trafficking and the power and resources of cartels.

Reevaluating the current approach, which has been in place for decades as part of the war on drugs, could be a game-changer for these countries.

Nevertheless, it would require a shared political agenda with clearly defined goals tailored to the unique circumstances of each country while maintaining an overarching strategic approach to accomplish common goals.

 This strategy involves acknowledging drug consumption as a public health issue rather than relying on what he referred to as an ineffective militarized approach.  Read More