On Saturday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos used his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize to criticize the war on drugs and call for alternative strategies. In front of a distinguished audience in Oslo, Norway, President Santos lamented that Colombia had “paid the highest cost in deaths and sacrifices” in the war on drugs and said that it was “time to change our strategy.”
“We’ve had no better ally among sitting presidents than Juan Manuel Santos,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “His advocacy for alternative strategies is all the more striking given the extent to which he was understandably focused on achieving the peace agreement for which he won the Nobel Prize.”
President Santos was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize for his work toward a historic peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) of Colombia. The decades-long conflict with the FARC has resulted in over 220,000 deaths and the internal displacement of five million people. The peace accords themselves include challenges to the war on drugs, including the provision of alternative livelihoods for coca farmers, the decriminalization of drug consumption, and a focus on health and evidence-based approaches to drug use.
During his acceptance speech, President Santos said: “We have moral authority to state that, after decades of fighting against drug trafficking, the world has still been unable to control this scourge that fuels violence and corruption throughout our global community. […] It makes no sense to imprison a peasant who grows marijuana, when nowadays, for example, its cultivation and use are legal in eight states of the United States. […] The manner in which this war against drugs is being waged is equally or perhaps even more harmful than all the wars the world is fighting today, combined.”
The war on drugs has brought devastation to Colombia and Latin America. The militarized drug war in Mexico has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, disappearances, and internal displacements and has corroded rule of law and due process. Illegal drug trafficking, and the associated violence, have made Central America home to some of the most deadly cities in the world. Aerial fumigation of illicit crops have destroyed livelihoods and the environment in the Andes. And yet, despite decades of the drug war, drug production and consumption have not decreased.
However, in recent years, debate and political will for drug policy reform has gained unprecedented global momentum. In recent years, Kofi Annan, George Shultz, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to “break the taboo” on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs – and to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs,” especially marijuana.
In April, on the eve of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, world leaders and activists signed a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging him to set the stage “for real reform of global drug control policy.” The unprecedented list of signatories includes a range of people from Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Richard Durbin and Bernie Sanders, to former President Jimmy Carter, to former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and George Shultz, businessmen Warren Buffett, George Soros, Richard Branson and Mo Ibrahim, actors Michael Douglas and Gael Garcia Bernal, Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, singers Annie Lennox and Sting, activists Gloria Steinem and Michelle Alexander, as well as distinguished legislators, cabinet ministers, and former UN officials.
In the past few years, drug policy reforms have taken place across the Americas. Uruguay became the first country in the world to legally regulate marijuana in 2013. In 2015, Jamaica approved a broad marijuana reform measure, decriminalizing the use of marijuana for religious, scientific and medical purposes. Colombia and Puerto Rico issued Executive Orders legalizing medical marijuana, and Chile is already cultivating marijuana for hundreds of oncology patients. And just last year, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting the consumption, possession and cultivation for personal use of marijuana was a violation of human rights.