Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Drug Debate at the OAS General Assembly

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The 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States opened on Tuesday in Antigua, Guatemala, with the aim of producing “a comprehensive policy against the world drug problem in the Americas.”

Guatemala has been at the vanguard of new thinking on the drug trade partly because it has few alternatives. The country is blighted by drug violence and losing control of its territory to organized criminal gangs that control drug shipping to North America and Europe. At the same time, its dangerously weak judicial infrastructure is powerless to stop them.

“We are opening the discussion (on drugs),” said Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. “This had not been done before. We expect to get the positions of all the American countries.”

When Pérez Molina called for the decriminalization of drugs and drug transport in February 2012, he sparked debate on the subject.  

But Guatemala is not alone. Uruguay has gone a step further: last year, President José Mujica  called for state control of the production and sale of cannabis.  A draft bill on this proposal has divided politicians in Uruguay, but is currently working its way through Congress; although the vote was postponed when opinion polls revealed that the majority of Uruguayans were against the proposal.

There is growing support across the hemisphere for a more lax approach to the “War on Drugs,” started by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971 in an attempt to combat growing consumption in North America.  Pérez Molina was backed by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla in asking for more debates.  Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos said he would favor decriminalization if other countries went first, and legislators in both Brazil and Argentina have debated decriminalizing the personal use of drugs.With the annual cost of the war on drugs running into the tens of billions of dollars—and with little to no impact on either production or consumption, according to the International Drug Policy Consortium—there is a unique window of opportunity to shift policy.

Although the archbishop of Guatemala City, Óscar Julio Vian, has urged policymakers to consider drug decriminalization, Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Fernando Carrera has refused to discuss this so far.  The OAS commissioned experts to write a report, “The Drug Problem in the Americas,” which was presented in Colombia on May 17.  However, at press briefings prior to this week’s General Assembly, officials admitted that it was unlikely the report would be ratified in Antigua.

“There are opposing views regarding the future of the discussion on the drug issue,” said a Guatemalan official who wished to remain anonymous.  The major sticking point appears to be the report’s recommendation that decriminalization be considered.

The topics of human rights and health will also play a prominent part in the debate, in an attempt to curb corruption and impunity and to educate drug consumers.  Other issues that are expected to be discussed during the General Assembly include new technology in education, women’s rights in the Americas, combating money laundering and arms trafficking, and the ongoing territorial dispute over the Las Malvinas/the Falkland Islands.

At a welcoming press conference on Monday, Carrera, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and Associate Secretary General Albert Randin faced heated questioning over the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and their activities during the recent Venezuelan election.  The Commission will face an election on Thursday with candidates from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and the United States.

For more details on the General Assembly and to view a live webcast of proceedings, visit the OAS website.

Follow our coverage of the OAS General Asseembly and click here to read AQ’s exclusive interview with the U.S. candidate to the IACHR, James Cavallaro.


Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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