Breaking the Taboo: Why the OAS Report on Alternatives to Drug Prohibition Is Such a Big Deal

A Mexican soldier stands guard next to packages of marijuana found at a warehouse in Tijuana, Mexico, on Wednesday, Nov. 16,
A Mexican soldier stands guard next to packages of marijuana found at a warehouse in Tijuana, Mexico, on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011. Approximately 17 tons of marijuana were discovered in a cross-border tunnel that appears to be one of the most significant drug smuggling passages found between the U.S. and Mexico. Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Organization of American States (OAS) released an unprecedented report last Friday that presents the most high-level discussion of alternatives to drug prohibition in history.

This report is a big deal. It's the first time that any multilateral institution anywhere in the world has critically analyzed the war on drugs and considered new approaches for the future -- giving equal weight to options like decriminalization and legalization in the process.

The OAS report doesn't make concrete recommendations. Rather, the second part of the reportlays out different scenarios for what alternative drug policies might actually look like -- scenarios which break sharply from the U.S.-led drug war, and which include various forms of decriminalization and regulation.

In describing these scenarios, the OAS is sayingwe need to put all options on the table to improve public safety and health in the hemisphere -- and that means considering the legal regulation of marijuana and other drugs.

Among the report's conclusions is the need for a "public health approach" to address drug problems -- and that "the decriminalization of drug use needs to be considered as a core element in any public health strategy."

The fact that the OAS -- the most important, multilateral body in the region, of which the U.S. is a member -- has produced a far-reaching report that was not subject to intensive political censorship is, in and of itself, remarkable. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable.

The report reflects the growing political momentum throughout the U.S. and Latin America for major drug policy reforms. The people of Colorado and Washington made history last November by voting to legally regulate marijuana -- a step that, if taken nationally, could deprive violent drug traffickers of their number one revenue source. A dozen other states are considering similar measures, and activists in many parts of the country are gearing up for initiative campaigns in two or four years. In Latin America, Uruguay's parliament is debating a bill that would make it the first country in the world to legalize marijuana. The OAS report will no doubt provide further momentum to activists across the Americas.

Yet the report is just the latest -- and most official -- legitimization of a debate that has been surging in recent years, thanks to the drug policy reform movement.

It's a debate that started with activists and intellectuals calling for an end to the failed war on drugs.

Then the former leaders of several countries entered the debate -- most notably the ex-presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, who united with other international figures two years ago to condemn the drug war and urge a fundamental transformation of global drug policy.

These ex-presidents were soon joined by sittingheads of state, such as Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala -- leaders whose countries have borne the brunt of prohibition's devastating consequences: extreme violence, endemic crime, rampant corruption, systematic abuses of human rights and the erosion of democratic institutions. These leaders demanded that the international community "break the taboo" on exploring alternatives to the failed drug war, and they empowered the OAS to undertake its current study last April at the Summit of the Americas -- where they also compelled President Obama to acknowledge thatending prohibition is "a legitimate topic for debate".

The OAS has now taken the debate to a whole, new level. The taboo has effectively been broken, and the debate will not stop until the war on drugs is brought to an end.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.

Daniel Robelo is research coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance (