A conversation with the Washington Office on Latin America on March 11, 2014


Note: This set of notes gives an overview of the major points made by representatives of the Washington Office on Latin America.


Good Ventures spoke with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) about WOLA's background and work. The conversation covered drug policy reform in the US and Latin America, and in particular Uruguay's legalization of marijuana, as well as WOLA's work on border security and migration issues.

The Washington Office on Latin America

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) promotes human rights and social change in the Americas. It was started in 1974 after General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile. WOLA’s mission was to connect policy-makers in Washington with witnesses who had first-hand knowledge of the human rights abuses happening under the dictatorships in the Americas. Close collaboration with partners in the region is the hallmark of WOLA’s work. . Over the decades, the challenges in Latin America have changed. Democracies have replaced dictatorships. New issues dominate the news – such as the U.S.-backed war on drugs, the rise of organized crime, increasing rates of violence, and concerns about migration and border security. Its 20-person office has built relationships with a variety of individuals and groups on a number of different issues. WOLA uses those relationships to inform organizational thinking and direction and uses a strategic annual planning process to focus on where it can have an impact on the most pressing human rights issues of the day.

WOLA evaluates potential issue areas on a combination of importance and tractability. An example issue is opening up US relationships with Cuba, an area in which WOLA has worked for many years and also anticipates progress in the future.

WOLA also has programs on citizen security, military relations, migration and border security, and human rights policy monitoring in Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, and the Andes.

In general, the interest level in the United States in what's happening in the Americas has decreased as national attention has shifted to the Middle East and other conflicted areas.

Drug policy

WOLA has decided to focus on the connection between domestic and foreign policy; drug policy is one example of such an issue. WOLA has been working on drug policy for almost three decades, since the mid-80s, during the cocaine epidemic when US laws became harsher and harsher with a focus on eliminating the drug supply by destroying crops in foreign countries. That approach has not worked and will not work, and much of WOLA's early work in drug policy was pushing back against the worst excesses of that policy, including the militarization of the drug fight and the fumigation of crops without due process. Some of the worst aspects of those policies have been minimized but fumigation continues today in Colombia. There has been limited success so far in Colombia, but now even the Colombian president says that a change in policy is necessary.

Now, WOLA faces a more promising situation for its work, with more potential for reform. It has broadened its focus from fighting crop eradication to a focus on US policy and the United Nations treaties that encourage criminalizing drug use and possession. These UN treaties affect legal systems and incarceration rates in places with flimsy due process, corruption in policing, and terrible prison conditions, which is a recipe for disaster. The impact of drug laws on Latin American countries mirrors the US, as WOLA found after a long multi-country study. The upsurge in incarceration rates came about as a result of countries criminalizing even possession for personal consumption and treating drug consumers as if they were drug traffickers

Marijuana legalization is a relatively new issue with enormous potential that has been shifting the drug policy debate. The US has been moving in the direction of liberalization for a long time, starting with exceptions for medical marijuana, which creates tension in the UN system. Now that further changes have occurred in Colorado and Washington State, the US is in an awkward position with respect to the UN treaties, because the US pushed hardest for a no-tolerance approach to drugs. Eventually there will have to be a discussion regarding international policy changes, and in the meantime there is opportunity for other countries, such as Uruguay, to make similar moves.

There is currently a lot of energy and momentum moving towards international drug policy changes. WOLA is in a good position to affect the debate, with relationships at the state level, connections to the Latin American and European debates, and experience working on US policy. There is a prospect of a block of Latin American governments, progressive European countries, and possibly the US itself pushing for more debate on these issues, or at least in the case of the US no longer actively attempt to shut the debate down. WOLA is planning to take advantage of this new opening.

Decriminalization, new markets and regulation, and sentencing reform are all part of the current drug policy debate. Other things WOLA is interested in include:

Debates are already taking place in the international area, and WOLA plans to help governments prepare to make the most of those meetings, including building a united Latin American approach leading up to this year's meeting. Together with the Transnational Institute, WOLA plans to prepare for the meetings in two specific ways:

Uruguay's approach

Uruguay is going to execute marijuana legalization more strictly than Colorado and Washington, and provides the best space that reformers have ever had to question and challenge the restrictions that drug treaties put on national efforts to devise better drug policies.

Thus far in the US, ballot initiatives are the obvious method available for reform-minded citizens to achieve significant marijuana policy reforms (until elected officials catch up with US public opinion). Uruguay was able to approach this issue through legislation in its parliament, which has certain advantages over the ballot initiative. Compared to an up-or-down vote, the legislative debate can reveal more potential problems, and skeptics, critics, and opponents contribute to improving the implementation by raising concerns, which should make for better outcomes. This isn't always the case, as the legislative approach can have bad outcomes and success wasn't guaranteed in Uruguay, but in general the legislative approach can strengthen the sustainability of outcomes because even opponents can have input into the deliberative process and compromises can be struck that gain backing of different interests

Uruguay is in a better position than Colorado and Washington to include a public health focus in its approach. The US states will likely follow the default US approach of a commercial model — which runs the risk of higher levels of use and marketing to youth — because businesses will be created with an interest in generating higher levels of consumption. A public health approach can be better, with distribution in the hands of nonprofits, or government stores, or in the Uruguayan case, through pharmacies, which is not uncontroversial but has advantages over the retail store approach.

Another advantage that Uruguay has in implementing a public-health oriented approach is that the country’s political culture generally tolerates more government involvement in the economy and public life. For example, Uruguay’s new marijuana law includes a flat ban on advertising and promotion of marijuana, something more difficult to attain in the US context. Uruguay’s law also requires consumers to register with the government and abide by a monthly purchase limit. Because Uruguay wants to reassure its neighbors that marijuana produced legally in Uruguay will not be exported to other countries, it needs to make sure supply and demand are highly calibrated, a key rationale for the user registry. Uruguay will also require registration of home growers and cannabis clubs in an attempt to satisfy the market without using a commercial approach.

In the context of Latin America, Uruguay has solid institutions. While people in every country have some issues with their government, by and large Uruguayans have confidence in their system of government and the competence of public institutions. A few years ago Uruguay passed strict tobacco control regulations, which have worked to lower levels of tobacco use despite initial skepticism.

Most Uruguayans remain skeptical of the new law, but Uruguay is likely to have political continuity in their drug policy and therefore the opportunity to ensure that implementation moves forward. The likely next president was formerly president and presided over the introduction of the new tobacco control regulation, and he has been clear that he's in favor of marijuana legalization and intends to make it work. The current party in control also has a chance to maintain control of both houses of the congress as a result of elections scheduled for October 2104. This political sustainability allowed the governing coalition to take a chance with legalization, and continuity after the October elections would give the coalition the political space to candidly evaluate the law’s implementation and propose adjustments as problems occur without each new discussion opening a political battle over the entire approach.

US drug policy

While Uruguay is likely to have some measure of political continuity, there is a lot about the current US position that remains subject to reversal. Although it could do more, the Obama administration has done a good job finding a way to accommodate Colorado and Washington's actions and has set some rules, but it's an open question what would happen under a new administration and what will happen in other states. US law hasn't changed yet, and in the short term it seems unlikely that Congress will make dramatic revisions to the existing law.

Considerations for funders in this area

There are few funders in the drug policy reform field. With these new developments we hope that there will be opportunities to broaden the field for support, but it is also a challenge. The late Peter Lewis was a critical and strategic funder for the field, prioritizing evidence and impact in grantee organizations.

There's currently active strategizing about putting legalization initiatives on state ballots or bringing legislation to state policymakers. Marijuana legalization advocates should realize that some of the most valuable voices in designing proposals are constructive critics such as Mark Kleiman, who has sharply questioned whether a commercialized system is the best default policy. Having a plurality of voices around the table from the beginning can strengthen initiatives and help build in flexibility to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, since it is almost impossible to imagine that such novel and complicated efforts will get all the ideas exactly right from the beginning.

The debate could be framed around the fact that certain regime types would do a better job of protecting the public interest and public health than others. In the US at least, it may be the case that the default in favor of a commercial system is so ingrained that it's going to be the best way to find success with legalization initiatives, and that the notion of regulating marijuana like alcohol will be the most likely to take hold — although the US doesn't regulate alcohol particularly well.

If this is to be the case, however, the risks that a commercial model may pose should be kept in mind so that those risks can be kept in check. If the actors in a commercial system accrue political power that is then used to weaken regulatory restraints, such as advertising limits, the public could lose confidence in the idea that legalization represents a superior approach, and the regulatory model could fall well short of it potential. By comparison to prohibition, the current situation in Colorado and Washington is good, but not as good as possible.

Funding research and evaluation is crucial, especially of a type that is constructively critical and that activists and governments can draw upon to improve policies.

Connecting advocates, researchers, officials and industry across jurisdictions so that they can learn from each other is also beneficial. There isn't currently a framework to systematically analyze what's happening in Uruguay. In general, more of a connection is needed between reforms in different places.

General observations on the importance of flexibility

In recent years there has been a trend towards funders asking nonprofits to define and map complex social change efforts into preset formulas in order to define and track impact. This is an understandable impulse, however in WOLA's experience, a lot of progress happens outside of those predefined steps or logic models and because having impact is complicated, having flexibility is important.

Border security and migration

WOLA's program on border security and migration is a way to focus on a set of issues that were not covered in the US immigration debate, such as: what happens to people when they get deported?

WOLA has identified a set of policy issues related to dangerous deportation practices. Doing so involved a series of research trips and a promptly released report. WOLA's most recent report covered a wide range of issues — including migrant deaths at the border and inhumane deportation practices such as dropping deported people in the middle of the night in dangerous areas of Mexico.

On border security, WOLA partners with Mexican groups to research and analyze issues on both sides of the border.

On migration, WOLA has two focus areas: inhumane deportation practices and migrant death issues. Goals include preventing migrant deaths by providing rescue beacons and water in parts of the desert, and stopping unnecessary deportation practices that put people at risk, including deporting people in the middle of the night and leaving them in dangerous areas and deporting people without their possessions, which can lead to their documents being lost. In South Texas, deported migrants are particularly vulnerable to kidnapping, extortion, and abuse by drug gangs and corrupt officials.

The safety of migrants coming up through Mexico is an issue. Shelters exist, most of which are run by the Catholic Church in Mexico, but there are broader issues including extortion, abuse, and kidnappings of migrants. While these issues take place in Mexico, WOLA is working on the US side by trying to get the Justice Department to prosecute extortion payments paid to kidnappers. This requires finding a case where the person who was kidnapped is now in the US with their family and is willing to prosecute. WOLA is trying to identify such cases and then hand them over to the Justice Department to prosecute.