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Exploring Alternatives to the War on Drugs

A new methodology is helping to reshape the future of the drug problem.

Telling new stories enables us to create new futures. Political leaders in the Americas are beginning to tell new stories about the problems of illicit drugs, and this is enabling them to begin to find new and more effective ways to address these problems.

In June 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry and all of his hemispheric counterparts met in Antigua, Guatemala, for the annual General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). The subject of their meeting was one that even a few years ago would have been undiscussable at such an official gathering: Is there a better way for governments to deal with drugs?

In the more than 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” governments in the Americas have had only one answer to this question: Drugs are bad, and their production, transport, and use must be eradicated, interdicted, and prohibited. Strict international treaties, national and local laws, and political taboos against suggesting alternative possible answers—especially legalization—have enforced this singular story.

In the last few years, however, support for this official story has been weakening. Non-governmental organizations have argued that the harms caused by prohibiting drugs—to public security, public health, and civil liberties—exceed the harms caused by the drugs themselves. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes the former presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, has called for “breaking the taboo” on the discussion of alternative policies. Then last year, the current president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, shared his frustration with the current approach during a private meeting with his counterparts at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena. “Sometimes we all feel that we have been pedaling on a stationary bicycle,” he said. “We look to our right and our left, and we still see the same landscape.”

At the press conference that followed this meeting, Santos made an unexpected announcement: “We, the region's leaders, held an invaluable discussion on the global drug problem. We agreed on the need to analyze the results of the current policy in the Americas, and to explore new approaches to strengthen this struggle and to become more effective. We have issued the Organization of American States a mandate to that end.”

The OAS chose to “explore new approaches” using a new methodology called transformative scenario planning. With the support of Reos Partners of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Center for Leadership and Management of Bogota, it organized a process in which 46 leaders from across the Americas—from security, business, health, education, indigenous cultures, international organizations, the justice system, civil society, and politics—worked together intensively over four months to construct scenarios for the future of the drug problem.

Scenarios are stories about what could happen in the future that are relevant, challenging, plausible, and clear. Crucially, they are not forecasts of what will happen and not recommendations of what should happen. This focus on what is possible, rather than what is expected or desired, enabled this diverse team of informed and influential stakeholders to open up their own thinking about the drug problem and, through their work, to open up the official policy debate.

The product of this collective creative effort was four stories that outline four different ways in which government and other leaders could understand “the drug problem,” and consequently four different responses they could attempt.

  • In the first scenario, Together, the drug problem is seen as part of a larger insecurity problem, with weak state institutions unable to control organized crime, and the violence and corruption it generates. Given this perspective, the attempted response is to strengthen the capacity of judicial and public safety institutions to ensure security.
  • In the second scenario, Pathways, the drug problem is seen as a result of the current regime for controlling drugs through criminal sanctions. Given this perspective, the attempted response is to try out and learn from alternative legal and regulatory regimes (including legalization), starting with marijuana.
  • In the third scenario, Resilience, the drug problem is seen as a manifestation and magnifier of underlying social and economic dysfunctions that lead to violence and addiction. The response that is attempted is to strengthen communities, and to improve public safety, health, education, and employment.
  • In the fourth scenario, Disruption, the drug problem is seen to be that countries where drugs (especially cocaine) are produced and through which they transit are suffering unbearable and unfair costs. The response that is attempted by some governments is to abandon the fight against drug production within and transit through their territories.

These four new stories present four radical alternatives to the current dominant one. These scenarios therefore offer a new language that governmental and other leaders can use to understand the challenges they are facing and the policies that they could employ to address these challenges.

The Secretary General of the OAS, Jose Miguel Insulza, presented these scenarios to President Santos and his counterparts in May and to their foreign ministers in June. Now, for the first time at this level, multiple policy options for dealing with the drug problem are on the table. The status quo “war on drugs” policy is now officially in question. These new stories are enabling leaders to create new futures.

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