Guatemala president to UN: Reform global drug policy

Perez Molina says a new drug strategy must emerge from an inclusive global discussion

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday.
2013 Getty Images

NEW YORK -- Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina rose to power in 2011 on the promise of crushing organized crime. The former army general pledged high-security prisons, an increased police force and the deployment of soldiers in the fight against drug gangs, which have transformed Guatemala into one of the most violent places in the world. 

But Perez Molina, in an apparent about-face, turned heads last year when he became the first sitting head of state to propose the legal regulation of illicit drugs in front of the United Nations General Assembly. The war on drugs has failed Central America, he said at the time, adding that legalization should be considered as an alternative way to combat drug-related crime around the world.

The Guatemalan leader on Thursday renewed calls for a new global strategy on drugs, one that emerges from an inclusive global discussion. He called on the United Nations to reassess international policy at a special session on drugs in 2016.

“Since the start of my government, we have clearly affirmed that the war on drugs has not yielded the desired results,” Perez Molina told the General Assembly. “We cannot keep on doing the same thing and expecting different results.”

In the face of the global drug problem, he said, leaders must seek innovative approaches to drug use, ones centered on public health and addiction prevention. Priority must be given to reducing the social violence associated with drugs and respecting human rights, he added. Perez Molina also lauded citizens in the states of Colorado and Washington for their “visionary decision” to approve measures last November legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.

“I think he correctly sees himself playing an historic role in the transition from the failed global drug-prohibition regime of the 20th century to a new 21st century global drug-control regime that minimizes the extraordinary costs and failures of the old approach,” Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, told Al Jazeera.

Earlier in the week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos also pleaded with U.N. leaders to reconsider the strictly prohibitionist approach to fighting drug trafficking and consumption.

“Right here, in this same headquarters 52 years ago, the convention that gave birth to the war on drugs was approved,” Santos said. “Today we must acknowledge that war has not been won.”

Reform gains momentum

Drug policy reform has gained unprecedented momentum in Latin America in recent years. Besides the Guatemalan and Colombian leaders, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico have encouraged governments to experiment with models that legalize and regulate drugs.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica gave reform new urgency last year by backing a bill that would allow the South American country’s government to regulate the production and distribution of recreational marijuana. The country’s lower house passed the legalization measure in July. And the Senate is expected to follow suit in October -- a move that would make Uruguay the first country in the world to create a legal marijuana market.

But calls for reform have fallen on deaf ears at the United Nations. Raymond Yans, head of the U.N. International Narcotics Control Board, urged the Obama administration last November to challenge the Colorado and Washington marijuana measures. And the U.N. drug agency has so far resisted calls from Latin American leaders to hold a special session on drugs.

The U.S. government has also refused to budge. During a visit to Mexico last year, Vice President Joe Biden sympathized with leaders calling for drug legalization -- “I think it warrants a discussion,” he said -- but he reaffirmed support for the U.S. model, arguing that there are few benefits from legalization.

That argument, though, has become increasingly difficult to defend. Colorado and Washington were the first political jurisdictions in the world to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Last month, the Obama administration said it would not challenge the laws as long as the two states maintain strict rules on the drug’s sale and distribution.

Now a growing chorus of Latin American leaders says the U.S. has lost its authority in the region. Why defend a policy that has cost so many lives and scant resources, they argue, when the U.S. has two jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana?

Instead, regional leaders are increasingly backing measures focused on drug legalization or decriminalization. Besides Uruguay, Mexico’s left-wing PRD party recently drafted legislation that would legalize marijuana. Additionally, measures circulating in Argentina and Chile would decriminalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of certain drugs. And last year, Colombia’s high court ratified a previous ruling that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine.

“If we act together on the drug problem, with a comprehensive vision, devoid of ideological biases, we will be able to prevent much harm and violence,” Santos told the General Assembly this week.

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