The shifting drug policy landscape across the Americas

The shifting drug policy landscape across the Americas

By Luke Vargas   
Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers participate in a controlled burning of seized cannabis and cocaine. August 3, 2012. Photo Victoria Hazou, UN/MINUSTAH
Haitian police and U.N. peacekeepers participate in a controlled burning of seized cannabis and cocaine. August 3, 2012. Photo Victoria Hazou, UN/MINUSTAH

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from our studio at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode One, “Mapping the U.S.-China Relationship in the Age of Trump.”

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Luke Vargas: Welcome to “Wake,” a production of Talk Media News. I’m your host Luke Vargas here for a dip into the waters of foreign policy to consider how events overseas affect our shores.

On today’s show we’re looking at the state of drug policy across the Americas. For decades, the U.S. led a fierce campaign against the cultivation, distribution and sale of illegal drugs. In some states, and a select few countries, attitudes and policies have begun to change. But under a new U.S. administration, the war on drugs could be poised for a comeback. How will policies across the hemisphere impact the Trump Administration’s crackdown on drugs? We’re taking on that question next, on Wake

We’ve brought together two great experts to discuss the state of drug policy across the Americas today.

Kasia Malinowska is the Director of the Global Drug Policy Program at Open Society Foundations here in New York. Kasia, welcome.

Kasia Malinowska: Hello. Thanks for having me on.

Luke Vargas: And on the line today from Washington is John Walsh the Senior Associate for Drug Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. John, thanks for being with us.

John Walsh: Thank you, Luke.

Luke Vargas: We’re going to turn to U.S. drug policy a bit later, but I think we need to start in Canada.

Earlier this month the Canadian government unveiled legislation to legalize cannabis by the summer of 2018. This was a central promise of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government. I’ve got a clip from Canada’s Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale, who manages the prisons, the borders, the intelligence services in Canada. Here he was at a press conference when the legalization bill was presented:

“If your objective is to protect public health and safety and keep Cannabis out of the hands of minors and stop the flow of illegal profits to organized crime, then the law as it stands today, has been an abject failure.”

An abject failure, he says.

John, I was hoping you could walk us through this Canadian legislation.

John Walsh: Sure. First, I think Mr. Goodale is correct, and that’s why the Canadian government has submitted a new law and why it’s broadly popular in Canada.

The new law would restrict cannabis possession to people 18 years and older. It would allow provinces to actually raise the minimum legal age. It would allow up to 30 grams possession in public and allow each adult to grow up to four plants per household. And the health department would be in charge of licensing and permits, with details about distribution at retail level left to the provinces, as well as questions about fees and taxes.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale unveils the Cannabis Act. April 13, 2017.
Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale unveils the Cannabis Act. April 13, 2017.

Luke Vargas: There are some big public safety elements of this bill as well, on the roadways, around schools, going after gangs and criminal networks. Kasia, I’m curious, do you think this sort of public safety-centric bill offers a way forward on the legalization front? That instead of taking law enforcement out of the picture, it gives them specific tasks and specific new laws for them to enforce day to day?

Kasia Malinowska: Yes that’s exactly what it does. And I think what Canada is now debating is very similar to the debate that happened in Holland a couple of decades ago, in the process of which cannabis coffee shops were put in place. Or for example in Czech Republic where citizens were allowed to grow their own cannabis.

Their argument basically is that you want to separate the markets and make sure that those that are interested in the purchase of cannabis get exactly that, and that all the other drugs are sort of separated from the cannabis market. So the discussion about the role of criminal justice in the policy discussions has always been a part of this conversation.

The question is how do you strategically use criminal justice system and how do you make sure that the use is sort of most optimal and least harmful. And I think Canada is using a similar set of arguments.

Luke Vargas: Kasia, Canada is obviously seen as the little brother to the U.S. – it’s got a tenth of the population – but in a global sense you could say they’re a mid-level player diplomatically. And if I’m not mistaken, were Canada to legalize cannabis, it would violate international law. Is that going to pose a problem for them?

Kasia Malinowska: So I think what’s important to keep in mind are a couple of points. One of them is that when countries tested the limits of international drug conventions – and it happened multiple times – there was a pushback from Vienna from [the International Narcotics Control Board], a body that sort of intends to keep countries adherent to the conventions, and it happened in a number of circumstances.

When Switzerland opened injecting facilities they had to lawyer up and explain to Vienna why they had done so. When Holland opened coffeeshops they had to explain to INCB what was the reasoning. When Portugal decriminalized personal possession of all illicit substances, again the back and forth between Vienna and Lisbon was intense and international lawyers used multiple arguments.

A public health billboard in Amsterdam encourages those concerned about tainted drugs to seek medical attention without the fear of legal punishment.
A public health billboard in Amsterdam encourages those concerned about tainted drugs to seek medical attention without the fear of legal punishment.

So this is not the case where a country for the first time ever pushes the limits of the convention. When Bolivia actually decided to allow a small number of farmers grow a cato of coca, again the discussion was intense. So this is going to be yet another example of testing the limits of the conventions, and I think Canada will have to do exactly the same thing.

I would prefer not to not to be the decision maker whether they’re breaking conventions or not, but I think they are in a very interesting space, which is across the border United States now has multiple states that legalized recreational cannabis use, so they certainly are not the only ones that need to sort of defend or explain themselves vis a vis the international community. In fact Uruguay has done the same thing already.

So I think Canada, I think it will be very important to be so clear and explicit that this in fact is their intention. And now United States is sort of hiding behind the fact that it’s not the federal government but the states that legalized cannabis. What Canada will do is it will push this argument even further in the international space.

Luke Vargas: John, I want to shift away from Canada in a moment, but before we do, let’s just assume this bill passes and cannabis becomes legal next Summer. Is the flow of drugs around the Americas going to change in any way as a result of this? Or is cannabis in Canada a domestic production and domestic consumption issue?

John Walsh: I think it’s largely a domestic production and consumption issue although Canada is an exporter in some senses as well, especially to the U.S., but that’s going to change as more and more U.S. states legalize as well. So I think it’s primarily a domestic issue.

Now, having legal regulated cannabis for adults might change the mix of consumption of other substances including opioids and including alcohol. We don’t know for sure what might happen but it might be a substitute and it might diminish levels of use of what are clearly more dangerous substances. So that’s what bears watching. But it would be largely a domestic issue because Canada can produce its own cannabis and will in a regulated way.

I did want to say one more thing about the Convention. I think it is clear that Canada will be entering a period of noncompliance once it passes this law, noncompliance with the treaties because they require countries, or they disallow explicitly legalization and regulation. But that doesn’t mean under international law Canada won’t have its options to pursue in order to make sure that it brings its new domestic law – which they are doing for the right reasons – back in line with its international obligations. They will have options to do it.

I do think they will recognize that they are going to be entering noncompliance and Kasia made very good point: the U.S. is also out of compliance right now and that’s very important to realize.

Luke Vargas: John, you are an expert in Latin America. You know this hemisphere well. Let’s pull back geographically and look beyond Cannabis, too. How active is the drug trade in 2017 now compared with decades past? What’s moving around? What drugs are being produced where, and where are they being consumed primarily?

John Walsh: There’s been some flux over time, over the decades, but in general the idea – the last U.N. General Assembly special session on drugs was last year, 2016, the one before that was 1998 – the idea was that by now we would have eliminated or at least substantially reduced drug production and use. Clearly that hasn’t happened.

At the very least you could say across the major drugs – cannabis, amphetamines, opiates and cocaine – that we’re stable, if not growing. So it varies in North America. In particular the cocaine market has diminished from its peak maybe about 10 years ago, but at the same time opiates and heroin, and opioids more generally, have grown enormously and cannabis has remained level and probably grown. Meth is a little more diminished.

But in Latin America, especially as economies grew in the last decade, use levels also rose of drugs like cannabis, but also cocaine and stimulants and became bigger markets.

So the global market is pretty stable. And the idea that, despite fluctuations in production and fluctuations country by country, the idea that there would be some substantial reduction, if not elimination, mostly through law enforcement operations is really a pipe dream.

The opening session of the 2016 U.N. General Assembly special session on the global drug problem. UN Photo/Manuel Elias
The opening session of the 2016 U.N. General Assembly special session on the global drug problem. UN Photo/Manuel Elias

Luke Vargas: Kasia, John was just laying out the regional drug trade picture for the Americas. A little over a year ago there was a flurry of headlines about drug legalization proposals in Central America. Uruguay, as you mentioned, had moved to legalize cannabis. What is the outlook like now? Is there momentum in some of those countries we were hearing about several months ago?

Kasia Malinowska: I think what we are seeing is that the momentum diminished slightly, partially because those headlines were related to the U.N. meeting that was happening exactly a year ago, the U.N. General Assembly session on drugs.

But as I think the public discussion has become slightly less visible, there were a couple of important things that happened. One of them is a medical cannabis became available in Chile, and they have quite an impressive legislation put in place to make that possible. The drugs chapter of the peace process in Colombia has been articulated very clearly and the Colombian government is now grappling with implementation and thinking about the relationship it should have to Colombia’s coca production. So I think on the ground we are seeing some positive steps.

Now what I think is really important to keep in mind is that this is really a long game. There is no expectation that things will shift immediately. Even if one looks at United States today, we got to a point where those states were able to regulate or to a point where close to 50 percent of those answering polling questions on legalization are in favor – we got to this point after really decades of debate, many discussions about about criminal justice and the inappropriate use of criminal justice when it comes to personal possession.

So I have a clear sense that things are moving forward in Latin America. Now, am I disappointed that it’s not as fast as we would like? Sure, I am, because I would wish for all those people that today arrested for personal possession would not end up in prison. But again my sense is that we are definitely moving forward and that this is a long game and we need to understand each country strategy and support the discussions that are now ongoing.

Luke Vargas: John, is that an outlook that you share?

John Walsh: I do, and I think there’s there’s real reasons why the reform prospects require a long game and people who were pursuing those reforms need to think that way.

The current system of a global prohibitionist system put down roots for over a century and was bolstered by an ideology, and frankly a propaganda war, and has also spawned numerous real vested interests in keeping what we have called the Drug War going. And to assume that they’ll just fade away when better ideas become debated is just not going to happen.

And I think for political leaders in Latin America in particular, by contrast to the US and Canada – where we’ve been talking about cannabis where public opinion is very clearly in favor of legalization, particularly among younger people, so younger cohorts as they become voters they’re very much in favor of legalization – that’s not the case in most of Latin America. So political leaders there have the tougher task. They’re not following public opinion, they’re going to need to lead it and shape it.

Even in Uruguay, which is the first country to ever legalize cannabis, public opinion is still not decided to be in favor. It’s going to require I think seeing the law work to bring people aboard there. So it’s a different, it’s a different challenge. And in many Latin American’s minds the idea of drugs is linked to the idea of crime. Of course that is the result of a policy of prohibition, but it’s hard to get to that point in the debate, and the leadership has a more difficult time in Latin America doing that.

The White House has yet to detail its attempts to address drug addiction.
The White House has yet to detail its attempts to address drug addiction.

Luke Vargas: Let’s shift fully to the United States, and we’ve got a few brief clips from President Trump here, from his address to Congress in February. He had a lot to say about drugs.

“We’ve defended the borders of other nations while leaving our own borders wide open for anyone to cross, and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate”

“We will stop the drugs from pouring into our country and poisoning our youth, and we will expand treatment for those who have become so badly addicted.”

“Our terrible drug epidemic will slow down and ultimately stop.”

There you have it. He doesn’t say “war on drugs,” but you can almost hear it there – the president talking about a battle, setting forth some victory conditions.

Kasia, are the countries on the front lines of drug production and drug trafficking readying themselves for the Trump administration to return to war on drugs-style policy, and if so, what might they be in store for?

Kasia Malinowska: I think what’s significant to keep in mind – and as I hear the statement, what it makes very clear to me is that Mr. Trump, President Trump, is not thinking about what was learned about drug policy over the last 15, 20 years. These statements are pretty much the same statements that we could have heard two or three decades ago.

So I think what President Trump is not considering in this statement is that you can today bring the entire supply of opioids needed into the country in two suitcases, and that would be Fentanyl – it’s a synthetic opioid that is incredibly powerful. For roughly $5,000 you can probably buy a million doses.

And so all this discussion about borders and how we’re going to protect borders and how that’s going to prevent people from using drugs is really absurd. When you think about what drugs are in fact on the market today. And he is responding to the overdose crisis and Fentanyl in fact is one of the reasons why we have overdose crisis. So basically the solution that he’s proposing does not all match the reality that we are now struggling with in the United States.

Luke Vargas: John, I want to put this over to you. The other major element of what President Trump is talking about and mentioned in his speech to Congress was the domestic crisis here. It’s not just about the border, its about opioid addiction in the United States. We’ve got Governor Christie of New Jersey heading up an opioid task force to figure this all out and present some policy suggestions.

In your eyes, what would be the best outcomes that could come of the Christie commission? What are some worst outcomes that you fear might be the way this administration heads?

John Walsh: Well the worst outcome would be a commission that recommends doubling down on the things that have already proven themselves to fail. And I think Kasia just said what those were.

The idea that we can stop the supply from coming across our borders is is ridiculous. There are many, many ports of entry and there’s more than a million cargo containers that cross the U.S. borders every month. Any one of them could supply the entire country with heroin. It’s just a non-starter to think that a border wall or enhanced border security is going to stop the flow of drugs when there’s a $100 billion plus market in the U.S..

So the question has to be on the demand side and it has to be about improving access to treatment and recovery, and improving access and training for using overdose reversal and prevention. Those are the keys, and I think the task force should be clear that those are the things they recommend.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joins the New Jersey Devils hockey team at an opioid addiction awareness event. April 7, 2017. Courtesy: Governor Chris Christie
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joins the New Jersey Devils hockey team at an opioid addiction awareness event. April 7, 2017. Courtesy: Governor Chris Christie

I have seen the Secretary of Health and Human Services talking that way. On the other hand, when you look at policy proposals coming out of the administration – in particular the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the dismantling of Medicaid expansion and the removal of treatment for substance abuse as an essential item being covered – that all points in the wrong direction.

So I think the Commission should have a very clear line of what they should propose, but whether this president and this Congress can take the practical steps they need to do this remains to be seen. It’s clearly a life and death matter every day, and every penny wasted on something that not only fails, like a wall or supply control overseas, is a waste, is worse than a waste because encourages this symbolism that the U.S. could solve this problem somehow by blaming other countries.

Luke Vargas: Kasia, just a minute left. Any hopes, fears about the outcome of this big opioid crisis review going on right now in Washington?

Kasia Malinowska: Well I think policymakers actually have a lot of data that comes from overseas and many of the European countries about how to deal with an opioid epidemic. They know about needle exchanges, proper drug testing and making results of drug testing available to communities that are using those drugs, injecting facilities, as John mentioned, distribution of Naloxone, substitution programs, methadone and buprenorphine programs as drug treatment.

There is a wide range of options that is available. The question is, will there be political will to actually make sure that all of those services are available to people who need them? Because that is what will be required to deal with the current crisis that we have of overdose.

Luke Vargas: Kasia Malinowska is the Director of the Global Drug Policy Program at Open Society Foundations here in New York. Kasia, thank you so much.

Kasia Malinowska: Thank you.

Luke Vargas: And John Walsh, Senior Associate for Drug Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, thank you.

John Walsh: Great. Thank you, Luke.

Luke Vargas: If you like what you just heard leave us a review on iTunes or follow the program on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

I’m Luke Vargas, signing off. Join us again next week on Wake.

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