Colombia’s new president should call for a dialogue on drugs

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

santosIn June 1998, Juan Manuel Santos signed a letter delivered to Kofi Annan, then the Secretary General of the United Nations, calling for “a frank and honest evaluation of global drug control efforts"….as “we believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself." Now that Santos is President of Colombia, he has the power to implement – in his own country – the letter's proposals for meaningful debate and an evidence based-approach to drug policy.

The letter – which gathered hundreds of signatures from prominent individuals from around the world – was delivered at the launching of the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem.  It also ran as a full page advertisement in the New York Times on the first day of the meeting. The fact that former UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and numerous former Latin American presidents also endorsed the letter brought even more attention to it.  While the official meetings were taking place, it became the main topic of conversation in the halls of the UN’s New York headquarters.

The letter concludes: 

“Persisting in our current policies will only result in more drug abuse, more empowerment of drug markets and criminals, and more disease and suffering. Too often those who call for open debate, rigorous analysis of current policies, and serious consideration of alternatives are accused of "surrendering." But the true surrender is when fear and inertia combine to shut off debate, suppress critical analysis, and dismiss all alternatives to current policies. Mr. Secretary General, we appeal to you to initiate a truly open and honest dialogue regarding the future of global drug control policies - one in which fear, prejudice and punitive prohibitions yield to common sense, science, public health and human rights."

At the time, Juan Manuel Santos signed the letter in the name of the Fundación Buen Gobierno (the Good Government Foundation), which he founded in 1994 with the objective of helping to improve the governability and efficiency of the Colombian government.  Since signing the letter, the United States has invested some US$7.3 billion dollars in Plan Colombia.  Yet the drug trade remains firmly entrenched and "the financial and human cost of prolonged war has been staggering."

Now that he is President, Santos should follow his own advice and promote both an open and honest dialogue on drug policy in Colombia, and evidence-based policies that support public health and human rights.  As part of that exercise, his government should reconsider aerial and forced eradication programs that have pushed farmers deeper into poverty, into the arms of left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, and off their lands, adding to the ranks of the country’s some 4.5 million internally displaced.

A good place to start would be for President Santos to form a commission of academics and drug policy experts tasked with recommending more humane and reasonable policies, as proposed by the Director of the Centro de Estudio DeJuSticia, Rodrigo Uprimny.  For too long, public debate on drug policy in Colombia has been stifled.  President Santos now has an opportunity to allow that debate to flourish – and in the process develop more effective and humane drug control strategies.

See also: Prohibition, a backwards step: The personal dose in Colombia, by Diana Esther Guzmán & Rodrigo Uprimny Yepes, Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 4, January 2010