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Scenarios for the drug problem in the Americas

Reos Partners
April, 2015

Discover more about the transformative scenarios process that launched a landmark debate on the drug problem in the Americas.


Despite a 40-year “war on drugs” in the Americas, drug consumption is growing, trafficking is continuing, and violence is moving from one country to another. In 2012 the Organization of American States (OAS) turned to a new approach: the Transformative Scenarios process. The extraordinary public evolution of hemispheric drug policy that has ensued is a testament to the power of this methodology.

To begin the process, we and our partners conducted Dialogue Interviews with 75 leaders in the hemisphere. We then invited 46 exceptional people engaged with security, business, health, education, indigenous cultures, international organisations, the justice system, civil society, and politics to form a scenarios team. The team produced four scenarios that represent different ways of viewing the drug problem and also describe what it might look like in 2025, depending on what governments do. In the words of Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, the scenarios provide “realistic options, without prejudices or dogmas.”

Released in 2013, the OAS report was hailed as a breakthrough by leaders, think tanks, and media internationally. In the ensuing months, OAS General Assembly members discussed the scenarios with drug policy makers and stakeholders all over the world. OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza called the impact “huge” and said, “The report managed to open up a discussion as frank as it was unprecedented.”

In September 2014, the OAS held a special assembly that came to new agreements on hemispheric drug policy. This was another unprecedented moment.

The upcoming UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs promises further breakthroughs. Says Colombian Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín, “We have a new perspective on cooperation, which should lead to a global consensus in 2016.”


In 2012, at a private meeting of leaders during the Summit of the Americas, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos raised his concern that the “war on drugs” was not being won. Santos had previously worked with Reos Partners on a project about the future of Colombia. He was also familiar with the work of our partners, the Bogota-based Center for Leadership and Management (CLG in Spanish). The OAS engaged Reos and CLG to lead a scenarios process.

The challenges

The war on drugs, pursued by governments in the Americas and worldwide at enormous cost for 40 years, is by most measures not being won. Despite progress in some areas, the drug problem overall shows continued high levels of addiction, incarceration, and violence. As Santos put it, “Sometimes we all feel that we have been pedalling on a stationary bicycle. We look to our right and our left and we still see the same landscape.”

The scenario team’s task was to construct clear, plausible scenarios of what could happen in the future regarding drug policy, based on current trends and relevant political, economic, social, cultural, and international dynamics. These scenarios would not be forecasts of what would happen or recommendations of what should happen. Rather, the goal was to create radically different ways of understanding—and responding to—the drug problem. This was to be done in a context in which alternatives to existing prohibitionist policies had long been absent from official discussion.

Read the full report.


Important international media coverage

Throughout the Americas and Europe, newspapers, television and radio stations, and bloggers have given the report voluminous and favourable coverage. The Guardian’s headline: “Western leaders study ‘game changing’ report on global drugs trade.” “The report … is both useful and novel,” wrote the Financial Times.

Vigorous international debate at all levels

The scenario report has made an important and authoritative contribution to opening up and reframing crucial strategy conversations. It provided the foundation for the annual meeting of foreign ministers at the OAS’s June 2013 General Assembly on drug policy. Now, throughout the Americas and beyond, new drug policies and laws are being vigorously debated and implemented at all levels—municipal, provincial, national, regional. In 2016 the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session on drug policy, and there is now unprecedented potential for consensus.

Wide recognition in policy circles

The scenarios report was widely recognised as a potentially game-changing contribution to a previously paralysed debate. Among the think tanks and institutions that weighed in were the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, and the Drug Policy Alliance.



“An overall balanced and measured report.… The report subtly but surely condemned the existing stance long-adopted by the United States that emphasizes imprisoning users and suppressing drug cultivation and flows.… Various Latin American countries are likely to increasingly break with the existing law-enforcement-heavy drug-suppression doctrine. They may thus usher in an unraveling of the global counternarcotics regime that has existed for more than 50 years.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, The Brookings Institution

“The report opens up the previously deadlocked debate on the best way to tackle drugs and organized crime.… Most importantly, the prohibition approach to drugs as the only viable option is challenged.… The report presents a milestone in the history of drug policy.”

Claudia Hofmann, Royal Institute for International Affairs

“It had a huge, immediate impact…. The report managed to open up a discussion as frank as it was unprecedented of all the options available in the quest for more effective policies for dealing with the drug problem in the Hemisphere…. The report has set a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ in our way of addressing the drug phenomenon.”

José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States

“The OAS Report had a major impact because of its technical content and because it took a bold and pragmatic approach, unfettered by ideological constraints, to possible ways of dealing with the drug issue. Moreover, because it was the first report by a multilateral organisation to break the taboos on options going beyond the United Nations Conventions, it has influenced public opinion and encouraged UN agencies to prioritise a discussion on drugs that focuses on public health, citizen security, human rights, and development.”

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy

“This document … provides a refreshingly broad and open set of perspectives on a debate that has become narrowed and polarized between drug ‘warriors’ and ‘legalizers.’ … The report presents scenarios of what could happen, not predictions of what will happen and not recommendations of what should happen.… They simply provide us with realistic options, without prejudices or dogmas.”

Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia


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