The movement toward an integrated hemispheric coalition to end the drug war that first manifested itself at the Mérida, Mexico, "Out from the Shadows" conference in February 2003 has taken another step forward with the formation last month of a new, anti-prohibitionist umbrella group. The Latin American Drug Policy Reform Network, known as REFORMA, so far includes member individuals and organizations from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay, and was formed with an eye toward influencing the 2008 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drug policy in Vienna.
Drug prohibition adversely affects Latin America in myriad ways, from fueling civil and war and environmental devastation in Colombia to threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of poor small peasants who depend on poppies or coca or marijuana as a cash crop, from fueling violence and corruption in Mexico to creating virtual ungovernable zones in Rio de Janeiro. Whether it is middle-class Buenos Aires marijuana smokers, Rio crack users, hardscrabble Sinaloa opium farmers or resource-strained Latin American governments themselves, all pay a price for drug prohibition.
When Latin American drug reformers who first met at Mérida reunited in September at the Andean Amazonic Forum in Popayan, Colombia, they reflected those differences, but they also reflected an emerging continental sensibility. From Colombia came Mama Coca (http://www.mamacoca.org), especially defending the interests of Colombian coca growers. From Argentina came the Argentine Harm Reduction Network (ARDA), with its emphasis on marijuana legalization and drug decriminalization as well as harm reduction. From Peru and Bolivia came the Andean Council of Coca Farmers, also defending the interests of coca growers. From Brazil came Psicotropicus (http://www.psicotropicus.org), a frankly anti-prohibitionist organization concentrating recently on marijuana legalization. And from the international community came the anti-prohibitionist Transnational Radical Party (http://www.radicalparty.org) and its offshoot, the International Antiprohibitionist League (http://www.antiprohibitionist.org).
"REFORMA stands for an anti-prohibitionist approach towards drug laws and a harm reduction approach to public health drug policies," said the group's introductory manifesto. "The network demands the decriminalization of drug use, the legalization of coca leaf and marihuana, legalization of medical marihuana, the defense of unbiased scientific research on drugs, the end of whatever Plan Colombia or Andean Initiative from the US, the complete stop of fumigations in Colombia, and indemnity to the affected population."
"The purpose of REFORMA is very clear: to advance the anti-prohibitionist agenda at Vienna," explained Gustavo de Greiff, the former Colombian attorney general named honorary head of the group. "We will attend the International Harm Reduction Association conference in Belfast next year to meet with other organizations, and in the meantime, we will undertake a lot of activity to demonstrate to our national governments the necessity of changing prohibitionist drug laws. We need to create the conditions for individuals, society, and governments to understand the failure of the drug laws and the necessity of changing them," he told DRCNet from his Mexico City office.
The continent already has an international network of drug reformers in the Latin American Harm Reduction Association (http://www.relard.net), and REFORMA members told DRCNet the new grouping seeks neither to supersede nor compete with RELARD, but to frankly push an anti-prohibitionist agenda, something that is beyond RELARD's scope.
"These are two absolutely different sorts of networks," said Silvia Inchaurraga, head of the Argentine Harm Reduction Association and one of the key instigators of REFORMA. "While we understand and support harm reduction efforts, we are also interested in actually changing the drug laws, for example, where they punish personal use or impinge on the rights of producers and farmers. The harm reduction movement in Latin America is too often tied to the state or to large non-governmental public health organizations to be able to advocate for these kinds of policy changes," she argued.
"We intend not only to promote laws designed to reduce the harm associated with drug use, but also to promote decriminalization and legalization," agreed de Greiff.
Baldomero Caceres is an advisor to Peruvian coca growers who attended the Popayan meeting. "Silvia and Luiz persuaded me to join with REFORMA," he told DRCNet. "I agreed with them on the necessity of talking about changing the drug laws as well as harm reduction, and that's why I joined," he said. "We also agreed on the need of rising to the defense of opium and marijuana and persuading the cocaleros to do the same. We believe it is all one battle."
"Ever since the 'Out from the Shadows' Mérida conference, the International Antiprohibitionist League and the TRP been paying particular attention to prohibition in Central and Latin America, working in particular to raise awareness on the issue of crop eradication in UN and European fora to urge a halt to the practice of the fumigations," said the TRP's Marco Perduca, who attended the Popayan conference. "We have also people in organizations with years of experience in harm reduction who are developing interesting ideas about the bigger picture of reforming drug laws. We think the IAL and the TRP could assist in sharing some of their thinking but also some of the activists' experience that in Italy and Europe has denounced prohibition and its failures through nonviolent means and direct civil disobedience as well as concrete reforms through referendums," he told DRCNet.
"This is something that has been growing since the meeting in Mérida," said Inchaurraga. "Many of the people and groups who came together in Popayan to form REFORMA first met at Mérida. This is the same movement, and we are now at a place where we think that drug policy reform is absolutely necessary in Latin America. This is the next step."
While the ultimate goal is reform or repeal of the UN drug control treaties, the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime, REFORMA members also hope to use their synergies to good effect in their home countries and the region at large. "If we can get the South American countries to have a common understanding that they need to change, that there must be drug policy reform, maybe we can challenge the American embassies and try to legalize marijuana, which is the main work we are doing here in Brazil," said Guanabara. "If we get our governments to agree that marijuana and coca should not be criminalized as they are under the UN conventions, then perhaps we can make some progress, not only at home but at the international level as well."
"We need to have a common effort," concurred Inchaurraga. "What we learned in one country can be applied in another. This is an extension of the spirit of Mérida, which brought together all the key actors in drug policy and made us aware of each other and what we were doing and how we are trying to achieve some of the same things."
REFORMA is reaching out to more groups and individuals, said Inchaurraga. "We are trying to develop new contacts and energize old ones," she said. "We are working with former Argentine solicitor general Jaime Malamud Goti and anthropologist Anthony Henman, and we are waiting to hear if Colombian Senator Gaviria will come on board. We are also trying to involve other key people within the drug user movement in Argentina and Brazil." The Jamaican Coalition for Ganja Law Reform has also come on board, Inchaurraga reported.
And so the movement grows.