Canada’s Hemispheric Engagement Strategy Falls Short on Drug Policy

In 2007, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new strategy for hemispheric engagement. “Canada is committed to playing a bigger role in the Americas,” he told a group of political and business leaders in Chile, “and to doing so for the long term.”

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2006-Present). Source: Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press.

Rejecting as “utter nonsense” the idea that Canada is “just like the United States,” the Conservative Party leader used his speech in Chile to position Canada as an independent and sympathetic northern ally. Not only does the political structure in Canada differ from the United States, Harper explained, but “our cultural values and social models have also been shaped by unique forces, and we’ve made our own policy choices to meet our own needs.”

Except, it seems, when it comes to drug policy.

Across the Americas, the political will to end the war on drugs has never been stronger. A growing number of Latin-American countries have entertained or passed legislation favoring decriminalization (to shift the drug debate into the health policy arena) and/or legal regulation (to eliminate the black market premium that drives global trafficking).

But Canada’s politicians, like those in the United States, remain committed to a policy of prohibition. That means spending millions of dollars ratcheting up security in Latin America and rebranding the Canadian Forces as a “partner” in the US counter-narcotics strategy while ignoring the need for a serious debate on drug policy at home.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird with Uruguayan President José Mujica, August 2013. Source: Government of Canada.

When asked earlier this month about Uruguay’s recent steps towards marijuana legalization, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, seemed perplexed: “I look at Canada at the amount of effort we’ve done for public-health reasons to discourage smoking, even banning it in private property in addition to public property, so it is strange that there’s this movement in place to promote [drug legalization].”

Strange is arguably a matter of perspective.

According to the World Health Organization, alcohol contributes to the deaths of more than two million people every year. But as Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina points out, “nobody in the world has ever suggested eradicating sugar-cane plantations, or potatoes and barley production, in spite of these being raw materials in the production of the likes of rum, beer, and vodka.” The comment is a thinly veiled reference to the forced eradication of primary crops for drug manufacture in Latin America, a controversial and ineffective pillar of the US war on drugs.

Stranger still, perhaps, is the political reaction to studies calling the logic of the drug war into question. In 2009, British scientist David Nutt released a report suggesting that when both personal and social harms were considered alcohol was more dangerous than many illegal drugs, including marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD. Nutt was promptly fired from his job with the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs on the grounds that “he [could not] be both a government adviser and a campaigner against government policy.” With significant backing from professional colleagues, Nutt has since called drug laws a form of “scientific censorship.”

The political disconnect on drug policy is both profound and paradoxical. In Latin America, where political leaders have spoken out in favor of policy reform, a recent Latinobarómetro poll shows significant popular resistance to drug legalization. Meanwhile, in the United States and Canada, widespread public support for the legalization of marijuana (see polls here and here) stands in marked contrast to official policies of prohibition.

Complicating the issue is the emerging breach between US federal and state policy. While the recent move to legalize marijuana in the states of Washington and Colorado may be a step in the right direction, Latin-American leaders have expressed concern that this serves only to aggravate existing problems by giving a green light to consumers in the north while continuing to punish people in the supply-side countries of the south, where the death toll from the drug war is highest.

“It makes absolutely no sense for [Mexico] to put up 55,000 body bags to stop drugs from entering the United States, which, once they enter the country, are de facto or de jure legally consumed,” says scholar and former Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Jorge Castañeda.

Source: Organization of American States.

Earlier this year, the Organization of American States tabled a report on the “Drug Problem in the Americas” that included four scenarios for dealing with drug policy: (1) better hemispheric security and institution-building; (2) inter-governmental coordination of alternative legal and regulatory policy regimes, starting with marijuana; (3) improving drug education and public health; and (4) abandonment of the fight against international drug trafficking by one or a group of supply-side nations in an effort to reduce the social, economic, and environmental costs of the drug war on domestic populations.

The first and third scenarios are variations on existing policies, which almost everyone — including the Canadian Prime Minister — agrees are not working. So, there are really only two new scenarios in play. And both of them require testing the resolve of prohibition in the north.

Canada, like its Latin-American counterparts, has been bullied by the United States on drug policy reform in the past. Attempts by the Liberal Party of Canada to push for the decriminalization of marijuana in the early 2000s quickly drew the wrath of US officials, who called into question Canada’s status as a friendly neighbor and warned that the United States would “clamp down even stronger on our border if you liberalize and contribute to what we consider a drug tourism problem.”

Recently, the Liberal Party upped the ante, announcing support for the legalization of marijuana. But even if the Liberals were to win Canada’s next federal election and the White House were to soften its stance on marijuana (which seems doubtful), restricting the legalization debate to marijuana ignores the fact that the biggest problem in the rest of the hemisphere is the prohibition on cocaine, not cannabis.

There are no easy answers. If Canada is serious about hemispheric engagement, however, it must seriously engage with more than one country in the hemisphere on drug policy.

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time