Ending the failed war on drugs emerged as a major theme of the United Nations General Assembly meeting this week, after Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina took the floor Thursday to denounce drug prohibition and urge the world's leaders to experiment with "new models" for controlling drugs.
In his address, President Pérez Molina made a forceful plea to end the insanity of current drug war policies, declaring "that the war against drugs has not borne the desired results, and that we cannot continue doing the same, waiting for different results."
The Guatemalan leader went on to praise the voters of Colorado and Washington for making history last November with their "visionary decision" to legalize and regulate marijuana, as well as President Obama for doing the right thing and "respecting the voice of the citizens of Colorado and Washington, to allow these innovative experiences to provide results."
President Pérez Molina also commended Uruguayan President José Mujica for proposing groundbreaking legislation "that regulates the market of cannabis instead of following the failed route of prohibition." The marijuana legalization bill has passed Uruguay's House and is expected to sail through the Senate when considered next month - which would make Uruguay the first nation in the world to legalize the production, distribution and sale of marijuana among adult recreational consumers.
Apart from the General Assembly, President Pérez Molina held private meetings yesterday with President Mujica and with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key - whose country's Parliament enacted a first-of-its-kind law this summer to regulate and control (rather than criminalize) so-called "new synthetic drugs" for recreational use.
While President Pérez Molina's remarks made the biggest waves, he was not the only Latin American head-of-state to call on the UN to end the global war on drugs. Using similar language as their Guatemalan counterpart, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla both criticized the failed drug war in their speeches on Tuesday - and called for new drug policies grounded in principles of health, human rights and harm reduction.
For her part, President Chinchilla affirmed that Costa Rica "joins the call from other States from our region, such as Mexico and Guatemala, to re-evaluate internationally agreed-upon policies in search of more effective responses to drug trafficking, from a perspective of health, a framework of respect for human rights, and a perspective of harm reduction" - a consensus statement that was developed and endorsed by all three presidents and by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. President Pérez Molina echoed this language in his own speech yesterday - as did Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, who addressed the UN on behalf of President Peña Nieto yesterday, adding that the statement was also supported by Chile, Paraguay and others.
President Santos didn't mince words when he condemned the drug war's catastrophic consequences, of which his country has suffered a disproportionate share. He stated: "Right here, in this same headquarters, 52 years ago, the Convention that gave the birth certificate to the war on drugs was approved. Today, we must acknowledge, that war has not been won. And I say this as the president of the country which has suffered more deaths, more blood and more sacrifices in this war." Santos said matter-of-factly that, were it not for the war on drugs, his country's half-century-long internal conflict would have ended long ago.
The Colombian president concluded by urging, "If we act together on the drug problem, with a comprehensive vision devoid of ideological or political biases, we will be able to prevent much harm and violence!"
As a starting point, Santos referenced the groundbreaking report issued by the Organization of American States (OAS) in May, which not only discussed marijuana legalization as a viable alternative to prohibition, but also predicted a likely hemispheric trend towards marijuana legalization in the coming years. In a companion report, the OAS also recommended decriminalizing possession of all drugs, which it described as "an essential element of any public health approach." All three presidents and Foreign Minister Meade Kuribreña expressed their hope that the OAS's inclusive process and far-reaching report will guide the UN's special session on drug policy planned for 2016.
This isn't the first time that Latin American leaders have pushed the UN to undertake a wholesale transformation of global drug policy. At the last General Assembly meeting one year ago, Pérez Molina and Santos (along with then-president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón) made headlines by calling for alternatives to the war on drugs - and for the UN to consider all available options, including the legal regulation of certain drugs, to reduce violence and weaken organized crime.
All in all, the week's activity at the UN to advance drug policy reform is a reflection of the unprecedented momentum that's rapidly growing - in Latin America, the United States, and around the world - for debating alternatives to a drug war that's increasingly recognized as brutal, unjust and unsustainable. Of equal importance, it's a promising sign that the necessary political will is finally mounting among world leaders to pursue those alternatives.
Daniel Robelo is research coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.