Drug Control Policy: What the United States Can Learn from Latin America

LASA Forum
Spring 2011

Since the 1912 signing of the Hague Opium Convention—the agreement that formally established narcotics control within international law—the United States has established itself as the dominant actor in determining drug control policies around the world. A chief architect of the international drug control regime, Washington has done its best to ensure that all subsequent international conventions obligate countries to adapt their domestic legislation to criminalize virtually all acts related to the illicit market in controlled substances, with the important exception of drug consumption. The predominant focus on prohibition and criminalization has been exported to Latin America, where the vast majority of the cocaine and heroin consumed in the United States originates.

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Since the launching of the Andean Initiative in 1989, the United States has used its political and economic muscle to help ensure regional compliance with repressive drug control policies. Those countries that cooperate have been rewarded handsomely with economic assistance and trade benefits, while those that do not have faced sanctions and potentially the stigma of being labeled international pariahs. Countries across the region have thus been quick to comply with U.S. dictates, eradicating coca and poppy crops (the raw materials for cocaine and heroin), adopting harsh drug laws featuring extraordinarily long prison terms and mandatory minimum sentences, and involving security forces in both domestic and international interdiction efforts.

But recently the U.S. influence on drug control policies in Latin America has been waning. Debate on drug policy in the region is heating up and some countries are beginning to experiment with alternative approaches that seek to limit the size of illicit drug markets while minimizing the associated harms—and at the same time
comply with international human rights standards. Across the hemisphere, frustration is growing with the failure of present policies to contain the drug trade, especially as those same policies exact an exorbitantly high social cost, including rising rates of drug consumption, overcrowded prisons, and burgeoning organized crime and related violence.


Increasingly, citizens in the western hemisphere are saying no to the war on drugs. While the Obama administration has kept U.S. drug control policy towards Latin
America on auto-pilot, some countries in the region are charting a different course, seeking to implement policies that are both more effective and in line with international due process and human rights standards. Indeed, there is much that the Obama administration could learn from its neighbors to the south when it comes to drug control policies.