TNI’s Martin Jelsma participated in the inaugural meeting in Rio de Janeiro of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy on April 30, 2008. Prominent members of the Commission are three Latin American former presidents: Fernando Henrique Cardoso from Brazil, César Gaviria from Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo from Mexico.
"It is time to develop a proper Latin American response that is detached from the ideology from the United States that has been common in the past decade," Martin Jelsma told the meeting. "It is potentially a good time to try because politically there is now more distance to US policies in a growing part of Latin America and to US domination in general."
He underlined the positive European experience with harm reduction and suggested the UN to adopt concepts such as the legal regulation of cannabis use for countries that decide to do so.
“There won’t be a world without drugs,” Jelsma said. “Zero tolerance is being substituted by harm reduction, which approaches the people to the problem. Harm reduction is a flexible set of policies that tries to diminish as much as possible the harm related to drug use to the consumer and society, as for example the regulation and selling of small amounts of drugs and the exchange of clean syringes to users.”
“The UN rejected the debate due to strong influence of the US, that threatened to cut their funding to the United Nations,” he added. “Even in countries with tough policies against drugs, as China, syringe exchange is now being implemented.”
Peter Reuter said that there “are about 500 thousand people arrested for drug related crimes in the United States. It is the same jail population of whole Europe for all crimes. Even so, the price of heroin and cocaine in the country fell, opposing what was expected.”
According to Peter Reuter, the drug market is not always connected to violence. This is also due to already existing problems in public safety issues of countries that have high criminality level, such as Brazil, the United States, Mexico and Colombia.
“Latin America needs to look beyond failing US anti-drug policies and find a new approach to fighting the drug trade, which is a growing threat to democracy in the region,” the former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso told Reuters in an interview. “Rising drug consumption in Brazil and other countries is another reason for better regional cooperation and policies focused on solutions beyond repression and punishment.”
Despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid to help Latin American countries fight drug cartels, the campaign has done little to stem the flow of cocaine and other narcotics to the United States.
Cardoso said Latin America could learn from the approach of some European countries in emphasizing public health and treatment of addiction: "They have a different set of alternatives." He also said that public attitudes needed to change in a region where drug addicts and those connected to the drug trade are often demonized by the police and the media.
The aim is to stake out a Latin American position on drug policy before a United Nations meeting next year that will review the effect of global policies in the past decade. "The question for us is if there is a different Latin American perspective, not to replace (the US one), but to be added to the discussion in the United Nations," Cardoso said.
Cardoso defended an open discussion about drug policy, making clear that he does not support full legalization: “Legalization is a bridge too far. We are talking about depenalisation.”
The meeting concluded that the UN aim made at 1998 UNGASS to eradicate the use and production of drugs in ten years has failed. On the contrary, the expenses of the anti-drug politics have increased, now over 40 billion dollars only in the US, while the global market moves 60 billion dollars.
The commission will organise two more meetings, one in September in Colombia, and another in February in Mexico. The result of the meetings will be presented in March 2009 in Vienna, at the meeting scheduled by the UN to discuss the 10-year assessment of UNGASS.
Other members of the the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy are: Sergio Ramírez, former president of Nicaragua; the journalist Ana María Romero de Campero of the Unir Bolivia Foundation; Antanas Mockus Sivickas, former mayor of Bogotá (Colombia); Alejandro Junco, director of “La Reforma” newspaper from Mexico; Diego García Sayán, vice-president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Peru); Enrique Santos Calderón, director of “El Tiempo” (Colombia); Patricia Llerena, judge at the Criminal Court in Buenos Aires (Argentina); the writers Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru, Paulo Coelho from Brazil, Tomás Eloy Martínez from Argentina and Enrique Krauze from Mexico; Moisés Naím, director "Foreign Policy" magazine; João Roberto Marinho, vice-president of Globo Media (Brazil); and Sonia Picado Sotela former ambassador of Costa Rica in the United States.
Tom Blickman, TNI