Wednesday, October 15, 2014

‘Pirate’ Drug Policy States of the Americas: Bolivia, Uruguay, and…the U.S?

While a recent statement by top U.S. State Department drug official William Brownfield has been largely overlooked, it could have huge implications for the future of drug policy in the hemisphere.

In an October 9 press conference held in the wake of last month’s OAS Special Session on Drug Policy in Guatemala, Brownfield applauded the final resolution of the meeting for approaching the issue from the perspective of the “importance of public health, not just criminal justice.” The OAS summit was a disappointment for drug policy reform activists looking for a show of support for change ahead of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs in 2016, but Brownfield said it had “good and productive debate.”

Brownfield’s statement went even further, as he explained to reporters that he had just outlined the current U.S. position on drugs to the UN ECOSOC’s Third Committee. From Brownfield  (with relevant bits highlighted):

In my statement, I laid out what we call our four pillars as to how we believe the international community should proceed on drug policy. First, the – respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions. Second, accept flexible interpretation of those conventions. The first of them was drafted and enacted in 1961. Things have changed since 1961. We must have enough flexibility to allow us to incorporate those changes into our policies. Third, to tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs. All these countries must work together in the international community. We must have some tolerance for those differing policies. And our fourth pillar is agreement and consensus that whatever our approach and policy may be on legalization, decriminalization, de-penalization, we all agree to combat and resist the criminal organizations – not those who buy, consume, but those who market and traffic the product for economic gain. Respect the conventions; flexible interpretation; tolerance for national polices; criminal organizations – that is our mantra.

It may not seem like much, but this is a massive change.  Just two years ago, the United States bitterly fought against Bolivia’s attempts to abandon the 1961Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and rejoin it with a reservation allowing coca cultivation for traditional uses. Now, Brownfield seems to be advocating the exact same approach to the Single Convention, allowing countries greater autonomy and flexibility in their interpretation of it. Of course, this likely has to do with the fact that Washington and Colorado state have legalized marijuana, and Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia look set to follow.

As well as for Bolivia, this is good news for Uruguay, which has argued that while its cannabis legalization law is out of step with international drug treaties, it is in line with the country’s international human rights commitments.  Presumably the new U.S. position will make it harder for the main drug treaty monitoring body, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), to single out Uruguay for what INCB head Raymond Yans has called a “pirate attitude.”

It’s also interesting to note how Brownfield outlined the regional debate over drugs. Instead of framing it as “the prohibitionist United States vs. the rest of the hemisphere clamoring for debate,” which is the way many drug policy reform advocates see it, the State Department official drew different boundaries, placing the U.S. in the middle of a broader spectrum.  In response to a question from a reporter, Brownfield said the following:
My own approach to this is to say that there are two extremes in this international debate. One extreme is – are those that I call the strict prohibitionists who believe there should be no flexibility, no give whatsoever, that anything related to drugs and illicit drugs should be prohibited and subject to criminal sanctions. At the other extreme are what I would call the strict legalizers who say, literally, “Let us legalize everything and the problem will go away.” […]At one end, you have the Government of Uruguay. They have legalized marijuana and cannabis throughout the Republic of Uruguay. At other extremes, you have governments that I will not name, but that take a very hardline approach to drugs. You have some that have been pressing hard for reforms – Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala. You have one, the United States of America, that is wrestling with a situation in which some of its constituent parts, with names like Colorado or Washington State, have chosen to legalize marijuana, others have not, and we have a federal policy that is different from the state policies.

In reality the governments of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, the countries “pressing hard for reforms,” may not see Uruguay’s law as so radical. Mexican authorities have expressed interest in monitoring the impact of Uruguay’s law, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has backed legalizing medical marijuana and toyed with supporting full legalization, and Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina has even pressed for legalizing not only the cultivation of cannabis, but of opium as well.  These positions seem far closer to Uruguay’s allegedly “extreme” position on marijuana than that of the U.S. federal government.

News Briefs
  • Brazil’s runoff presidential candidates, President Dilma Rousseff and Aecio Neves, held their first one-on-one debate on television last night. Both O Globo and the Financial Times note that corruption scandals took center stage in the debate, with both candidates accusing the other of using bogus statistics and hiding corrupt ties.
  • The announcement comes after the head of the most powerful local criminal group, Guerreros Unidos, Benjamin Mondragon Perea, reportedly died after a firefight with security forces. As Excelsior and the L.A. Times report, authorities said that Mondragon killed himself upon seeing that he was surrounded by Federal Police.
  • As noted in yesterday’s brief, the Iguala students’ disappearances have raised pressure on the Mexican government to adopt an appropriate policy response.  In particular, a letter sent by Human Rights Watch to Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong last week has made a big splash in the Mexican press (see Excelsior,  Proceso, CNN Mexico and El Universal, which copied it in full). In it, HRW’s Jose Miguel Vivanco asserts that Mexican authorities need to deepen their commitment to investigating all forced disappearances, locating the victims, and prosecuting the perpetrators. Despite all of this advocacy, President Enrique Peña Nieto has so far been vague, only sending federal forces to Guerrero to assist with the search and making an ambiguous promise yesterday to strengthen security institutions in the country, as Milenio reports.
  • Guatemala’s El Periodico has published a new report claiming to be based on U.S. anti-drug intelligence, which alleges that high-level officials in the country’s National Police have deepened their criminal ties in recent years, to the point of stealing and reselling drug shipments. InSight Crime notes that the lack of specifics over the source of the report makes it hard to analyze, but that if true it would seem to point to the existence of a top-level corruption ring in Guatemala’s security forces, akin to Venezuela’s “Cartel de los Soles.”
  • The Economist profiles the recent murder of PSUV lawmaker Robert Serra, noting the holes in the government’s claims that he was assassinated by right-wing elements.
  • Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro is apparently a fan of the New York Times’ recent editorial calling for the end of the U.S. embargo on the island. The AP notes that in a column published in state media on Tuesday, Castro quoted the editorial almost word for word, only leaving out “one sentence about his government’s release of political prisoners and another about U.S.-Cuban cooperation.”
  • Uruguay’s groundbreaking 2012 abortion law -- which made it the second country in Latin America after Cuba to decriminalize the procedure -- has seen a legal setback. According to El Pais, an administrative court yesterday suspended language in the law that obliges gynecologists to participate in abortion-related procedures, and authorizes them to provide women with information regarding maintaining the pregnancy. As the paper notes, the extent of medical workers’ rights to abstain from performing the procedure on moral grounds was a major element of the debate around the law, and yesterday’s ruling grants more autonomy to health professional workers in this regard.
  • The AP has picked up on some of the flak that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is facing in the wake of his recent lamentation that the Constitution does not provide the president with any vacation time. The AP notes that his complaint have earned Santos little sympathy in a country where “55 percent of the population works under the table without such benefits.”