The Global Social Thematic Forum in Cartagena: Toward Global Drug Reform? 6/27/03

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The Global Social Forum Special Thematic Meeting on Democracy, Human Rights, Wars, and Drug Trafficking is now over, its participants have scattered to the four winds, and the search for meaningful results will now begin. According to event organizers, more than 4,700 people from some two dozens countries came to Cartagena for a week's worth of panels, workshops, roundtables and speeches on topics ranging from the micro (such as creating a space for women in village politics and the economics of small-plot coca cultivation) to the macro (such as the role of the United Nations in defending human rights and the impact of anti-drug policies on society, economy, and the environment).

As noted last week, much of the forum was informed by a harsh critique of US foreign policies, especially as they play out in Colombia. But participants also went beyond mere critique as, in panel after panel, people came together in search of solutions to the problems inflamed by the ongoing civil war cum drug war cum war on terrorism in Colombia. The backdrop was the gleaming beachfront high-rises and colonial-era fortresses of old Cartagena, but the subject matter of the forum was nuts and bolts activism, whether on how to organize youth in urban slums, how media activists could confront established news outlets with preordained agendas, or how to build authentically democratic social movements in an atmosphere of war and intimidation.

And old clashes sometimes generated new heat, most notably when Human Rights Watch director Jose Miguel Vivanco used the occasion of a panel on the UN and human rights to rip into Cuba's human rights record. Not only did Vivanco's denunciation of the recent execution of three hijackers and the imprisonment of nonviolent dissidents draw hisses and boos from some in the crowd, it also drew a stern rebuke from the Cuban ambassador to Colombia. Vivanco and the ambassador exchanged angry mutual accusations over whether Cuba allowed access to its prisoners, but much of the crowd was clearly on the side of the embattled Castro government.

The drug-related sessions of the forum were, for the most part, less controversial and less acerbic, as the critique of prohibitionism has gained increasing acceptance, even in the nominally Catholic and conservative countries of Latin America. For those with some experience with drug policy, there was little new in terms of global revelations; instead, there was a filling in of detail. A panel of Brazilian harm reductionists, to give one example, showed how prohibition and the drug trade work in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the cannabis fields of the Brazilian northeast, while Spanish Basque activist Martin Barriuso explained how drug reformers were able to make serious advances in Spain despite a regressive political atmosphere. Similarly, Dutch social scientist Peter Cohen, noting the loud calls for "peace with coca," told the audience it must also seek peace with cocaine instead of demonizing the powder.

While much, if not all, of the discussion at the forum focused on Colombia and the brutal conflict fueled by US military hardware and the illegal drug profits created by prohibition, it was the drug trafficking axis organized by the Mama Coca collective ( -- see the interview below with Dario Gonzalez Posso as well as last week's interviews for more) where drug reformers, peasants, organizers and academics from Latin America, Europe, Asia, and North America came together in an effort to move toward reform on a global level. Some 60 or 70 people met on Wednesday, June 18 to see whether they could reach a consensus on how to move forward.

"We would like to present a proposal to form a global commission on drug policy," said Mama Coca cofounder Dario Gonzalez Posso as he introduced the plan. "We need to evaluate these anti-drug policies. After three decades of drug war, it is time to present alternatives and come up with new models. There are precedents for this sort of commission," Gonzalez Posso added, "such as the meeting on human rights and international law in Colombia that took place in Costa Rica in 2001. This commission was to present its results to the UN, and we hope to do the same," he explained.

Now is the time, Gonzalez Posso said. "We are seeing important movements taking place around coca growing in Bolivia and Peru, as well as in Colombia, where last September people began looking at the problem of proscribed cultivation from within the context of agrarian reform," he pointed out. "There are also important initiatives in other countries, such as the efforts to get governments to ask the UN to repeal or amend the anti-drug conventions."

Gonzalez Posso also outlined some general criteria for any such commission. "We need an analysis based on human rights, not only relating to the health and well-being of consumers and producers, but also the defense of the environment and the rural milieu," he said. "We need to develop informed proposals to end the criminalization of growers, the demonization of plants and the penalization of consumers. We need to make known and vindicate the medicinal value of the coca, poppy and marijuana plants," he said. "And we need to ensure that the committees that help create this commission are formed by people from all over the world who are experts in their field, whether it is drug policy or harm reduction or agriculture."

Research by such a commission would have several concrete goals, Gonzalez Posso continued. "We need to analyze traditional policies in such a way as to create a database for the UN, and we need to be able to demonstrate the diverse impacts generated by prohibition policies in the long run. We also must design a mechanism for social oversight of drug phenomenon. We are not talking about a new bureaucratic infrastructure but about creating a new movement. The commission we envision is not something to be imposed, but something that is fed and strengthened by local social forums around the world."

While a general consensus in favor of the Mama Coca commission proposal seemed to emerge, it was by no means unanimous, and the discussion that followed showed clearly the differing perspectives of those in attendance. For Ricardo Soberon, coordinator of the Peruvian Frontier Programs Project Advisory Board, it was imperative that any commission look at drug production, consumption and trafficking worldwide. "We must go beyond the national level," he said.

Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt, a British drug users' advocate and editor of the London-based Users' Voice, warned that drug users must not be excluded from any such commission. "While we need to respect the diversity of this global movement, we also need to be inclusive. People who use drugs are too often excluded from participation. We must be included," she said.

Basque cannabis activist Martin Barriuso expressed enthusiasm moderated by concerns over the workability of a large project. "It will be difficult, and perhaps we should start with an annual report on people adversely affected by drug policies," Barriuso said. "Maybe we should also break it up into different parts of the world. For example, in the Basque country, we don't focus much on the environmental impact of drug prohibition, so there we might want to concentrate on other aspects. The first thing is to get the opinions of the people actually affected by these drug policies."

Francisco Thoumi, a Colombian academic and expert on the drug trade there, cautioned that the UN conventions may not be the insuperable obstacle many suppose. "I've worked with the UN on drug issues," he said, "and the current conventions can be interpreted in different ways. Coca, for example, was not prohibited by the 1961 convention; instead, Peruvian and Bolivian elites committed themselves to end coca chewing in 25 years." Still, said Thoumi, there is still a need for study of coca crops in the Andes, and there are a couple of questions any commission would need to address. "What will you do about plants not used for illicit uses, and how do you prevent leakage from the licit to the illicit sector?"

Peter Cohen
And while some academics repeated the call for more investigations, more research, not everyone agreed. The research is there already, some suggested. "Adding a document to a warehouse full of documents is not very useful," argued Peter Cohen, director of the Dutch Center for Drug Research in Amsterdam (CEDRO). "If we are going to do something, let's think about activities that will raise the profile of those groups who suffer most from prohibition. It is clear who those groups are in Latin America," Cohen argued. "But no one knows these people exist. At this point, our work is only partly intellectual -- that work has been done -- and we need to have a basically political focus. In order to save the seals in Antarctica, it was important that a French filmmaker filmed those little seals being killed to arouse public opinion. We need to do something similar now."

Still, said Marco Perduca, executive director of the International Antiprohibitionist League, given the United Nations' refusal to analyze the impact of drug prohibition, "if official organizations are not going to do this, perhaps civil society can. We need to do this at the global level, because everyone is affected by prohibition, and not just of drugs, but of sex, of information, of research." Nor should reform efforts limit themselves to the UN's anti-drug bodies, he added. "We can use the UN system to call attention to violations of economic, social and cultural rights protected by the UN Charter. The UN has a committee that deals with violations of these rights. It issues recommendations and proclamations that are sent to governments. This could be a first step, but we also have to work with deputies and parliamentarians in the various countries so we can get governments to raise these issues at the UN."

Luiz Paulo Guanabara
Not everyone signed on. North American Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies and Witness for Peace told the meeting he would continue to concentrate his limited resources on Colombia. And a delegation from Brazil consisting of antiprohibitionist and harm reduction groups also demurred. "We had meetings among ourselves about this," said Luiz Paulo Guanabara of Psico-Tropicus, "and the consensus we reached was 'fuck the UN.' We think our time and resources will be better spent influencing policy in Brazil, which could well lead the way to reform on a regional basis," he explained.

Others were unable to commit pending consultation with home offices. Sharda Sekaran of the US Drug Policy Alliance told DRCNet she would be reporting to her bosses and a decision on participation would come after that. Similarly, DRCNet's Phillip Smith, while eager to explain DRCNet's antiprohibitionist position to the audience, made no commitment to participate pending discussions within the organization.

At least one Colombian workers' and peasants' group had no such concerns. "We welcome this proposal," said Luis Carlos Alvaro of the Colombian National Confederation of Workers. "We have already created an agrarian mandate for reform here in Colombia, and we think that can be integrated into this proposal. Speaking as small farmers, we believe it is imperative to talk about the cultivation of illicit crops. The growing of such crops is related to the unequal distribution of land. The government wants to make us small farmers invisible. We want to be part of this proposal," Alvaro affirmed.

For Mama Coca and Gonzalez Posso, the general tenor of the conversation was enough to say, "I understand that it is a yes, we have a positive reaction to our proposal, and work toward this global commission needs to begin. It is now time to create a committee to push forward this global commission, but we don't want just another bunch of meetings. We must construct a process that creates a network of working groups, and we must start it now," he said. "We will propose some meetings; we will look for the best moments. We recognize there are other groups working on this, and we will seek to form a converging initiative."

But that process will take time, Gonzalez Posso told DRCNet. "I think it will be six months at least before we have a real framework. There is still much to decide, much to be done."

While panel after panel addressed various aspects of democracy, human rights, war, and drugs, for the purposes of drug reformers, it was the Wednesday session with Mama Coca that was the highlight of the conference. After all, for most of the people in attendance at that session, the ills of prohibition, as articulated at the forum, are old news. What is new and exciting is the prospect of forming a global movement for reform.

In that sense, for some in attendance, Cartagena was also a chance to renew friendships and expand networks established at the DRCNet-sponsored Mérida "Out from the Shadows" conference in February. Among those who attended both meetings were Peruvians Baldomero Cáceres, Hugo Cabieses and Nancy Obregón; Brazilian Luiz Paulo Guanabara; Colombian María Mercedes Moreno of Mama Coca; Dutch academic Peter Cohen; English user activist Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt; Don Wirtshafter from the Ohio Hempery; and the International Antiprohibitionist League's Marco Perduca. And while not all of them will be participating in Mama Coca's call for a global commission, the informal networks of global drug reform are growing as well.

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Issue #293, 6/27/03

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