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Published on 26 January 2016  by encod

Lessons from Latinamerica

Lessons from Latinamerica: what Europe should learn about drug policies

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View online : Lecciones de Latinoamerica

In the run up to ’UNGASS 2016’, the special United Nations Assembly on the global drug problem that is held from 19 to 21 April this year in New York, Encod in collaboration with the Latin American Federation of Flanders organised a debate on the role of Latin America inside UNGASS, called ’Lessons from Latinamerica’.

Who had expected firework in the debate between the representatives of the embassies of Mexico (Luis Elizondo) and Uruguay (Ignacio Gonzalez) left somewhat disappointed, as the two parties actually agreed completely with the statement that UNGASS 2016 should mark the launch of a new paradigm in drug policy that should be based on facts and not on morality.

Latin America has been suffering from the disastrous impact of the war on drugs for decades now. Only in Mexico, over the past 10 years the violence between drug cartels has caused 100 000 civilian deaths, nearly six times as many as the civilian casualties in the war in Afghanistan in the same period. In addition, 60.000 people have disappeared, including 43 students who on their way to a protest demonstration against the Mexican government in September 2014 were arrested by local police and handed over to a local drug gang with the assurance that these students belonged to a rival cartel.

Corrupt politicians, drug lords who maintain entire neighborhoods, destruction of thousands of hectares of cannabis, coca leaves and opium being the source of income of poor peasant farmers, millions of children who grow up amid the daily violence between street dealers and the police. Although it only leaves a few crumbs of the sky-high profits made by international drug trafficking, the illicit drug economy puts its mark throughout Latin America.

No wonder that precisely in this continent many people would want an end to the drug war rather today than tomorrow. One of them is the former President of Uruguay, José Mujica. Under his leadership the small neighbour of Brazil and Argentina legalized the production of cannabis for personal use and distribution through Cannabis Social Clubs and pharmacies in December 2013. More than two years after, the new system is still not in force, but in the meantime five US states have followed the example of Uruguay and Chile, Colombia, Jamaica, Canada and Costa Rica are on track to do the same. Had the Dutch Government had a fraction of the determination of its Latin American counterparts, the back door of the coffeeshop would have been regulated long ago.

Also Mexico is asking for a new drug policy, argued Luis Elizondo. A policy centered on people, and not on the drug he or she uses. The fight against drug traffickers like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman who was recently arrested again after his spectacular escape last year, can not be won with weapons but with economic development based on justice, fair trade and solidarity, according to Elizondo.

Can such a development start when drug prohibition is over? Ignacio Gonzalez, the official representative of Uruguay, explained that his country does not regret its first small step towards drug peace. Even if takes longer than originally thought to put the final regulatory model on track.

In Uruguay since December 2013 all cannabis consumers who register have the right to either grow six plants at home, or become a member of a Cannabis Social Club (the law allows for a maximum of 45 members and 99 plants, which should grow in or near the clubhouse) or become a customer of a pharmacy where the government-controlled grown cannabis will be sold for 1.08 euro / gram.

Yet until now there are only a few of thousands of Uruguayans registered as home grower or CSC member - a tiny part of the 150.000 cannabis consumers in the country. And the system to distribute cannabis from the pharmacies will first be up and running in the summer of 2016. So the black market for cannabis in Uruguay still exists. May this have something to do with the fact that the government has decided to limit the number of species that can be grown legally in the country to five, and the seeds of these plants are marked genetically to make them easier to be traced?

According to Gonzalez the experiment until now has satisfactory results for everyone involved, and some measures are needed to avoid the accusation that Uruguayan cannabis would pop up in neighboring countries. The intention remains to develop a peaceful alternative to a policy that everyone now admits has failed. But Uruguay will first have to gain their own experience to serve as a model for others.

At the end of the evening also SMART was mentioned, the "Sociedad Mexicana de Autoconsumo Responsable y Tolerante", or Mexican Alliance for Responsible, Tolerant and Personal Use. Under this name a group of Mexican activists managed in October 2015 to convince the country’s Supreme Court to declare that growing plants for own use is a universal right of every person. As a result there is now a legislative proposal to allow cultivation of cannabis for personal use and in clubs.

That UNGASS 2016 upon the initiative of Latin America will convert into the endgame of the international war on drugs is something the representatives of Mexico and Uruguay did not want to have said. Therefore the bureaucratic mills turn too slow, and there are too many interests at stake the details of which ordinary mortals do not get insight in. But whatever governments may decide on UN summits, ultimately what counts is that citizens will continue to demand their right to make use of nature. There is no turning back.

A video report on the debate will be available soon.

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The European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies, is a pan-European network of currently 160 NGO’s and individual experts involved in the drug issue on a daily base. We are the European section of an International Coalition, which consists of more than 400 NGOs from around the world that have adhered to a Manifesto for Just and Effective Drug Policies (established in 1998). Among our members are organisations of cannabis and other drug users, of health workers, researchers, grassroot activists as well as companies.

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