Friday, June 20, 2014

Pope Francis and Drug Policy in Latin America

Pope Francis has once again come out strongly against drug legalization, a position that could complicate reform initiatives in heavily Catholic Latin America.

Speaking to participants in a drug enforcement conference in Rome earlier today, the pontiff criticized even limited legalization of drugs, saying that doing so is both legally problematic and counterproductive. According to Vatican news agency Zenit, the pope said: "Legalizing so-called 'soft drugs', even partially, in addition to being questionable in terms of legislation, does not produce the desired effects." This is because, he argued, "substitute drugs are not sufficient therapy, but a veiled way of surrendering before the phenomenon [of drug addiction]."

The Associated Press notes that Uruguay, which neighbors Pope Francis’ native Argentina, recently published the implementation guidelines of its landmark marijuana law. Uruguayan officials have been particularly vocal about framing marijuana legalization as a way to fight crack cocaine use, potentially limiting pot users’ exposure to the more harmful drug.

Because Uruguay has a long, proud tradition of being among the most secular nations in the Americas, Pope Francis’ statement is unlikely to spark any kind controversy there. But it may resonate elsewhere in Latin America, the region with the greatest number of Catholics on the planet.

The pope’s words echo his own remarks during a visit to Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, in which he criticized the “liberalization of drug use.” However, his choice of language reflects a lack of familiarity with the global drug debate. Uruguay’s government, for example, has insisted that the new law is the opposite of liberalization, because its goal is to regulate a black market that was previously left unchecked.  

And marijuana legalization is hardly the only alternative response to the drug problem.  Some countries in the hemisphere, most recently Jamaica, are opting instead for decriminalization.  The Economist Explains blog recently published a helpful overview of the important distinction between these two approaches, providing essential reading to anyone who may be unfamiliar with the difference, the pope included. From the blog:
Decriminalisation does not mean that people can use drugs with impunity. Instead it means that possessing small amounts no longer lands the perpetrator with a criminal record or a jail sentence. Jamaica has proposed that people caught with up to two ounces (57 grams) of cannabis should be fined, but not arrested or taken to court. Drug users in Portugal can be forced to attend classes aimed at getting them back on the straight and narrow. People found with cannabis in Italy may have their driving licences confiscated. By contrast, legalisation means that consumers face no penalty at all (unless, for instance, they smoke in public places).

News Briefs
  • Today’s New York Times profiles former Colombian presidential candidate Clara Lopez, whose endorsement of President Juan Manuel Santos is credited with clinching his re-election win in last Sunday’s elections. But while the NYT characterizes the endorsement as a pragmatic move that makes the left in the country “politically relevant again,” it does not come without a price.  As Semana reports, Lopez has come under fire from the left-wing Senator Jorge Robledo, the most popular lawmaker in the country, exposing a divide between progressive sectors who support constructive criticism in a coalition framework over a less flexible approach to opposition.
  • As the Washington Post reports, on Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department removed over 300 individuals and entities from a sanctions list targeting Colombia’s Cali Cartel, the largest delisting in Treasury history. CNN referred to the move as a declaration of “victory” over the cartel, and U.S. officials described the development as the end of the “empire” of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, the imprisoned Cali kingpins.
  • Some 1,500 people turned out in a demonstration in São Paulo yesterday to mark the anniversary of last year’s wave of mass protests in Brazil. Though it started out as a peaceful march organized by the Free Pass Movement, a group that advocates free public transportation, it escalated after masked demonstrators began vandalizing cars and banks, as Folha de S. Paulo and the Wall Street Journal report.
  • The Inter-American Press Society (SIPA) has issued a statement condemning violence towards journalists covering the World Cup, saying that security forces are responsible for the majority of cases. In the first week of the tournament alone, at least 17 media workers have been assaulted in Brazil, according to SIPA.
  • Ahead of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit with Central American leaders today to discuss the flow of undocumented immigrant children along the border, President Barack Obama phoned Mexican leader Enrique Peña Nieto to address the situation yesterday. According to a White House press statement, Obama praised Mexico’s "efforts to target the criminals that lure families to send children."
  • After meeting with Dominican President Danilo Medino in Santo Domingo yesterday, Biden praised the recent passage of a law which grants a legal path to citizenship to individuals of Haitian descent, offering a partial fix of last year’s controversial Dominican court ruling. EFE reports that the vice president likened it to calls for immigration reform in the U.S., stressing the potential for such initiatives to benefit the economy.
  • In an op-ed for El Universal, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope argues that the country’s approach towards citizen security lacks strategic planning based on evidence and evaluation. He asserts that public pressure is an essential requirement for this, however, stressing that officials must be called on “not just to do something, but to do something that works.”
  • Animal Politico reports on the status of an agreement over energy reform laws in Mexico, which has been held up by lawmakers of the conservative PAN party, who are refusing to support an energy bill until the ruling PRI agrees to pass an electoral reform measure. The law would reform the constitution to allow re-election of mayors and lawmakers, and change rules regarding proportional representation in state legislatures, according to the L.A. Times.
  • This week’s issue of The Economist features a grim prediction on Venezuela, noting that while opposition protests seem to have died down in recent weeks, the steps that President Nicolas Maduro’s may need to take to restore economic growth -- like devaluation and relaxing price controls -- may add fuel to protests and further damage his falling popularity.