Drug addiction creates the need to consume more and more drugs, which have less and less effect; ultimately, the addict simply consumes drugs to avoid withdrawal. Something similar has happened with drug policy. Countries have felt the need to place a growing number of activities under the rubric of “drug crimes,” and to increase the penalties for buying and selling, supposedly to control an expanding illegal market. This increasingly punitive approach has had less and less effect on decreasing the supply and use of illegal drugs.
So just as the addict, faced with the declining effects of the drug, automatically increases the frequency and amount consumed, public officials, seeing the scant impact of growing punitive repression, have increased the dose and frequency. And this, in turn, has fueled our addiction to punishment.
While Latin America’s first drug-control laws, enacted in the 1920s, included minor penalties of up to two years in prison, or no prison term at all, penalties have dramatically increased over the past few decades. In some countries, like Mexico and Peru, maximum penalties for drug-related crimes have shot through the roof—up to 40 years in prison in the case of Mexico and 35 in Peru. Even places with the lowest sentences—Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina—have shown a steady rise in sentence length.
But change is in the air. For the first time, sitting presidents are issuing calls to review empirical evidence and open debate. In June 2013, the presidents of Guatemala, Colombia, and México, during the 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS), signed the Declaration of Antigua calling for new approaches to drugs, recognizing drugs as a public health problem and calling for a special assembly to evaluate current policies.
And changes are not limited just to discourse. Concrete policies are also being modified. In some cases, local governments lead these transformations. For instance, in Colombia, the city government of Bogotá opted for a harm reduction policy, which emphasizes public health over punishment.
In other cases, it’s the national government that takes the boldest steps. Ecuador and Bolivia have enacted pardon laws that allowed for the release of thousands of people imprisoned for low-level participation in the drug trade. And Uruguay has opted for a regulated market for cannabis.
All these changes are significant because they signal a break with the punitive international model. Latin American countries are reclaiming not just national autonomy and sovereignty but are also adopting policies that are more democratic and more sensitive to human rights. Hopefully, our addiction to punishment is coming to an end.
Rodrigo Uprimny is Director of Dejusticia, based in Bogota, which engages in public debates about law, institutions, and public policy in Colombia and Latin America. Diana Esther Guzmán is a researcher at DeJusticia.
Read the rest of NACLA's 2014 Summer Issue: "Reimagining Drug Policy in the Americas"