OAS calls for softer approach toward illegal drug users

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The Organization of American States on Friday published a report calling for decriminalization of drug use and for greater coordination between nations in tackling the scourge.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (L) receives a document from Jose Miguel Insulza, General Secretary of the Organization for the American States (OAS), during a meeting at presidential palace in Bogota May 17, 2013. REUTERS/Andres Piscov/Presidency/Handout

“The report presented by the OAS today is a vital piece in the construction of a common way to fight this problem,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said during the presentation of the 200-page report in Bogota.

Almost all the cocaine consumed in Western countries is produced in Latin America, while violence linked to the drug trade kills thousands every year as smugglers fight for control of trafficking routes in Central America, Colombia and Mexico.

Drug consumption is ticking up in nations such as Argentina and Brazil. According to the OAS, about 45 percent of cocaine consumers, 50 percent of heroin users and 25 percent of marijuana smokers live in North and South America.

The report for the OAS, which includes all 35 North and South American nations, aims to start a debate among American nations regarding anti-drug policies. It also advocates for softer policies toward drug users.

“The decriminalization of drug consumption must be considered the base of any public health strategies,” the report says. “An addict is not a person with a chronic disease that should be punished for his addiction.”

The report echoes comments by Helen Clark, the head of the U.N. Development Program, who in March said she favored Latin American governments treating drugs as a public health problem.

It also calls for “a substantial reduction in penalties” to drug addicts and urges countries in the region to opt for rehabilitation programs instead. It suggests that countries in the region should consider the option of legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana consumption.

“Our report, however, did not find any significant support, in any of the countries, toward the decriminalization or legalization of any other illegal drug,” the OAS said.

The United States has sent billions of dollars to Colombia to combat the cocaine trade but still there is limited coordinated effort between countries in fighting drug trafficking and usage. That prompted several member presidents to ask the OAS to analyze the region’s anti-drug policies in order to make them more effective.

The Open Society Foundations, a human-rights and pro-democracy group, celebrated the report as a “game changing” document that likely will broaden the debate on drug policy reform.

“This is the beginning of an international conversation on a new approach to drugs,” said David Holiday, the group’s senior regional advocacy officer. “We can hope this will move policies from those currently based in repression to strategies rooted in public health and human rights.”

Many in Latin America feel a new approach is needed to the drug war - and a shift away from hard-line policies - after decades of violence in producer and trafficking nations such as Colombia, Peru and Mexico.

Some regional leaders are pressuring the United States for an overhaul of anti-drug policies. Presidents including Santos have suggested they might be open to legalization of some narcotics if that helped reduce violence.

Reporting by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Bill Trott