Will Summit of Americas be tipping point in drug war?

This weekend, on April 14-15, U.S. President Barack Obama will join over 30 other heads of state from throughout the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia for the Summit of the Americas. For the first time ever, a major focus of the summit—both in official meetings and behind closed doors—will be the need for alternative strategies to the failed war on drugs.

The urgency of the discussion is growing in light of the prohibition-related violence in Mexico that has killed more than 50,000 people since 2006, the growing war zones in Central America, and South American governments worn down by decades of disastrous US-sponsored eradication and interdiction efforts that have bred institutionalized corruption and routine violence.

This is the first major gathering of heads of state at which alternatives to prohibitionist drug control policies, including decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illegal drugs, will be on the agenda.

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. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and the new president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, are taking the lead, with varying levels of support from a growing number of other governments. 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.

Presidents Santos and Perez Molina are not the first sitting presidents to propose major drug policy reforms including consideration of legalization. Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle did so in 2001, as did Honduran President Zelaya in 2008. Neither, however, pursued it.

By contrast, Presidents Santos and Perez Molina clearly understand that what’s most needed now is not advocacy for outright drug legalization, rather the initiation and legitimization of informed discussion about alternatives to counter-productive prohibitionist strategies. Both are proceeding carefully and strategically in developing their positions and recruiting allies at home and throughout the region.

The shift in the public posture of the U.S. government—from rejecting any discussion of legalization to acknowledging that “it is a legitimate subject of debate”—is significant notwithstanding the clear caveat by the Obama administration that it remains firmly opposed to the notion. Presidents Santos, Perez Molina and others have wisely seized on this opening to put the broader question of drug policy reform on the agenda at Cartagena and in upcoming international gatherings.

Debates over drug policy in Cartagena will be far more lively behind closed doors than in the forums open to the public. Most presidents will probably affirm their opposition to “legalization,” but the more important outcome may well be an emerging consensus that the time is ripe to critically evaluate prohibitionist drug control strategies. The governments of Guatemala, Colombia and Costa Rica will likely be joined by others willing to commit to this process.

That said, it is safe to assume that the U.S. government will do all it can to suppress, ignore, distort and otherwise derail the emerging dialogue. U.S. officials are handicapped, however, by the remarkable failure of government agencies over the past 30 years to contemplate, much less evaluate, alternative drug-control strategies. They also must contend with the fact that the United States has rapidly emerged—at the level of civil society, public opinion and state government—as a global leader in reform of marijuana policies.

It is too soon to predict if this Summit of the Americas will represent any sort of tipping point in global or even regional drug-control policy. But the odds are good that this gathering will one day be viewed as a pivotal moment in the transformation from the failed global drug prohibition regime of the twentieth century to a new twenty-first century global drug control regime better grounded in science, health, fiscal prudence and human rights.


Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a leading U.S. advocate for promoting alternatives to the war on drugs.

  • Ken

    I still say that Obama doesn’t dare get near this policy until after next November’s election, though I bet he lets it be known informally that the US will climb aboard after he is reelected (assuming he is). At least I hope for this outcome. The war on drugs has been a disaster, and everyone knows it except unfortunately a wide swath of the US electorate.