April 29, 2013 -- You may not have noticed but apparently the "war on drugs" is over. No one is claiming victory, but a group of influential leaders in the U.S. and Latin America have decided the term "War on Drugs" is out of date.
While that might be up for debate, most agree that it's time for a change in strategy -- away from the violent "war" and onto to strengthening public health and judicial systems.
At a recent debate on drug policy at the World Economic Forum on Latin America, panelist Oscar Naranjo, Colombia's revered former national police chief, said "when we add the concept of war, what happens is that the criminal knows his only option is death and so the logic is he has to kill or he will be killed. So, the term should be banned."
That doesn't mean the fighting is over, however.
During the Univision-hosted debate José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the OAS, pointed out that the Americas is the only region in the world where the cultivation, production, trafficking, sale and consumption of illicit drugs "happen in a relatively comprehensive way, and that is what is affecting security and stability in our countries."
In other words, thousands are still dying in the Western Hemisphere as a result of violence related to drug trafficking. Although there's no denying that the debate about drugs has finally entered a new stage.
Public sentiment is out in front of public policy on this issue but high-level officials have accepted that we need to change the status quo and think differently about how to reduce the impact of illegal drugs in this region.
Representing the White House Michael Boticelli, Deputy Director, National Drug Control Policy, said "we have to think of this as a public health issue and a public health response in partnership with law enforcement."
The policy focus is slowly shifting away from criminalization to prevention and treatment. The implementation of "Obamacare" is expected to drastically expand access to drug treatment programs.
On the security side there is a growing consensus that it's time to reduce military engagement and focus on policing and strengthening judicial systems.
Naranjo pointed out that security efforts are concentrated on the production and the consumption ends of the drug trade -- the two most vulnerable links in the chain -- but we leave out what happens in the middle, where most of the money is made. This needs to change.High level policy debates are great but we also need to take into account what's happening at the street level in the communities where drugs are passing through, impacting both addicts and traffickers.
Washington de Oliveira Rimas, Director of Cultural Afro Reggae, a foundation that helps urban youth in Brazil leave drugs and crime, said a wider conversation needs to take place over what is a drug and what action should be taken on each. Alcohol, marijuana and cocaine are all considered drugs but they all have very different effects on users and society.
The other panelists weren't willing to go that far but the debate is changing fast. Maybe next year.