A year and a half ago, in June 2013, José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), presented a two-part “Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas” to the Foreign Ministers of all of the countries in the Americas at the OAS’s annual General Assembly. The first part was an Analytical Report about the past and present of this problem, and the second was a Scenario Report about possible futures.
The preparation of these reports had been mandated a year earlier by the Heads of State of these countries at their Summit of the Americas. The Summit’s host, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, had articulated the imperative for this work. He pointed out that the “war on drugs,” which his country and others in the hemisphere had been pursuing at enormous cost for 40 years, was not being won. In spite of progress in some areas, the problems of drugs had remained terribly and frustratingly stuck, with continued high levels of addiction, incarceration, and violence. “Sometimes we all feel that we have been pedalling on a stationary bicycle,” he said. “We look to our right and our left and we still see the same landscape.” At the conclusion of the Summit, he announced: “We, the region’s leaders, held an invaluable discussion on the global drug problem. We agreed on the need to analyse the results of the current policy in the Americas and to explore new approaches to strengthen this struggle and to become more effective. We have issued the OAS a mandate to that end.”
Reos Partners and the Center for Leadership and Management in Bogota led the transformative scenario planning process that was to enable to the governments “to explore new approaches.” A team of 46 stakeholder leaders, from security, business, health, education, indigenous cultures, international organisations, the justice system, civil society, and politics, from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean, met for two workshops in Panama City in early 2013. They agreed on four scenarios of what could—but, crucially, not would or should—happen in and around “the drug problem” in the Americas. Their agreed scenarios were published as the OAS’s Scenario Report.
The first scenario was called Together. In this scenario, the drug problem is seen to be part of a larger insecurity problem, with weak state institutions unable to control organised crime and the violence and corruption it generates. Given this perspective, the attempted response is to strengthen the capacity of judicial and public safety institutions to ensure security, through greater professionalization, better partnering with citizens, new success indicators, and improved international cooperation.
The second scenario was Pathways. In this scenario, the drug problem is seen to result from the current regime for controlling drugs through criminal sanctions (especially arrests and incarceration of users and low-level dealers), an approach that is producing too much harm. The attempted response is to try out and learn from alternative legal and regulatory regimes, starting with cannabis.
The third scenario was Resilience. In this scenario, the drug problem is seen to be a manifestation and magnifier of underlying social and economic dysfunctions that lead to violence and addiction. The response that is attempted is to strengthen communities and to improve public safety, health, education, and employment through bottom-up programs created by local governments, businesses, and non-governmental organisations.
The fourth scenario was Disruption. In this scenario, the drug problem is seen to be that countries where drugs (especially cocaine) are produced and through which they transit are suffering unbearable and unfair costs. The response that is attempted by some governments is to abandon the fight against (or to reach an accommodation with) drug production within and transit through their territories.
At the official launch of the two reports in May 2013, Santos said: “The four scenarios in this report allow us to analyse the issue of drugs through considering what could happen in the future. They are not recommendations of what should happen or forecasts of what will happen; they simply provide us with realistic options, without prejudices or dogmas…. I am committed to continuing to promote a deep, serious, and responsible debate with regional and global leaders, experts, universities, and think tanks, to start—the sooner the better—generating new responses to addressing this serious problem that continues to plague humanity.”
The two reports got voluminous and favourable coverage by newspapers, television and radio stations, think tanks, and bloggers throughout the Americas and Europe. The Financial Times said: “The report, prompted by Latin American governments that have long chafed about the violence they suffer in fighting drug-traffickers, is both useful and novel. It is useful in that it gathers many of the facts and experiences that have shaped global drug policy, be that outright suppression to decriminalisation. It is novel because it explores multiple scenarios if different policies are then applied.” The Royal Institute of International Affairs called it “a watershed in the international debate on drugs and organised crime.” The Council on Foreign Relations said: “Most international reports simply gather dust. This one won’t. It offers the basis for a long-overdue conversation.”
In the 18 months since José Miguel Insulza presented the reports to the OAS General Assembly, he and his colleagues have discussed them with drug policy makers and stakeholders all over the world, in tens of private briefings, diplomatic meetings, and public fora. The response has been enthusiastic. Former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos said: “The OAS Report is a huge step forward. The idea of using an innovative methodology to depict future scenarios, depending on which policies are pursued, bodes well for greater certainty in decision making with regard to a future strategy.” Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, said: “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.”
Insulza’s summarised these months of conversations as follows: “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.”
Then in September 2014, the OAS held another special General Assembly of Foreign Ministers to agree on, based on these months of conversations, a new hemispheric drug policy. The significance of the agreements they reached was summarised by Colombian Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín, who said: “Our very significant achievement was that we spoke about and discussed the policy to combat the global problem of drugs in the hemisphere. Previously, for 60 years, this debate was not had. We had not had any real discussion or objective assessment, just a consensus on repressive policies. Now we have opened up the debate among states, both at the United Nations and the OAS, on the effectiveness of drug policy because, despite everything that has been done, the problem has not been resolved: consumption, rather than decreasing, is increasing, trafficking continues, and violence has moved from one country to another. Now there is more openness to consider different ways of responding to the problem…. The process of reflection and analysis began in the Cartagena Summit 2012, which asked for scenarios to make our fight more effective. We see what went wrong and how we can be more effective in this fight, which has many dimensions and has no easy answers. We looked at new scenarios that allow us to have more effective policies. This decision to look at scenarios, which now seems clear and obvious, was not obvious two years ago when we launched the debate.”
Holguín went on to summarise the agreements in terms that clearly referenced the conclusions that she and her colleagues had drawn from the four scenarios. She said, echoing Together, “One of the major conclusions is that we need more cooperation and to work together on all fronts.” Echoing Pathways, she said: “Not everyone accepts that consumption is not a crime. But a formula was agreed for countries that are able and have the desire to find alternatives to incarceration. Those who disagree can do nothing. The resolution gives countries give freedom to test options to fulfil their commitments with respect to drugs and human rights—that there is more than one way to address the issue.” Echoing Resilience, she said: “We have a new approach, based on a focus on health, prevention, and rehabilitation.” And echoing Disruption, she said: “At no time did we consider abandoning the fight against drug trafficking.” Finally, referring to the milestone UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs scheduled for 2016, she said: “We have a new perspective on cooperation, which should lead to a global consensus in 2016.”
This extraordinary public evolution of hemispheric drug policy is a testament to the determination and courage of many of the leaders and stakeholders who are concerned with this issue. It is also a testament to the value of the transformative scenario planning methodology for dealing with such complex and stuck situations. This rigorous consideration of multiple, agreed stories about what could happen—rather than, as is usually the case, of only a single, contested story about what will or should happen—enables actors to get unstuck and to move forward. Reos Partners is happy to have been able to contribute this methodology to creating progress on this vital challenge.