Political strategies

“Let’s stop the strategies that don’t work!” » : Interview with Paula Aguirre, director of Elementa

Continuing a collaboration with Proyecto Soma, TalkingDrugs had privileged access to important figures in the Latin American world of drug policy.

She mentioned that she regretted studying law in her university life. That she felt trapped in a cage due to the strict and conservative outlook of the law. But today, Paula Aguirre is the director, in Colombia, of Elementa DD.HH. (Elementa Human Rights), a multidisciplinary and feminist team focused on “creating viable legal scenarios” and political advocacy to strengthen human rights in truth and reparations processes and, in particular, in drug policies.

It is precisely human rights that have kept her in the legal world. But perhaps, above all, in a world of change, transformation and correction of laws. “Human rights allow us to play with a world of rules that are not just limited to the national,” says Aguirre. “In our countries, we usually have legislative systems that may be strict on certain issues, but when we start working with international human rights, instruments, pathways, doors, options and alternatives appear. “

Ways, doors, options and alternatives. This is what Elementa DD.HH seeks to build to replace the failed drug policies that in Colombia have had immense consequences. According to truth commission, the drug war paradigm in this country has not only failed to have “effective results in dismantling drug trafficking as a political and economic system.” But also, he added “an enormous number of victims within the framework of the internal armed conflict” and “activated narratives of criminalization of populations and territories which justified violent operations”. This diagnosis could be applied to the entire Latin American region.

What new things did you learn about the law when you started working on drug policy?

That’s shit. It’s hard. In drug policies, we realize that the law is insufficient. We need many other disciplines. I learned chemistry, biology, sociology and anthropology. We have to nourish ourselves from many different fields which do not always speak to each other. And it’s time to learn how to put them into dialogue to put them into practice.

How should we understand the need for drug policy reforms?

We begin by recognizing that the war on drugs has had a direct impact on people’s human rights. It’s not just something we don’t like. In our countries with historically discriminated populations, it has aggravated already bad circumstances. Drug policy reform aims to generate a guarantee of rights and, in addition, to repair. Because it is not simply a question of changing them and starting from scratch, but we must talk about a drug policy that repairs the damage it has caused for more than fifty years.

Elementa is dedicated to creating viable legal scenarios. What do you think are the viable legal scenarios in Latin America with the greatest potential for drug policy reform?

Building viable scenarios involves playing with what is available, understanding the context of a country or political region and, legally speaking, seeing what that country offers to transform it. Obviously, Uruguay has been an example in the region. However, Colombia has the potential to do so: it has the knowledge, the experience and the suffering; he killed people. But, politically and legally, he has already advanced a path in terms of jurisprudence. So we have spectacular judgments that open up a promising path for us.

Elementa is a multidisciplinary and feminist team that works with a social, judicial and political orientation to build and strengthen human rights in the Latin American region.

An X-ray of drug policies in Colombia under the last government of Iván Duque has recently been published. What conclusions would be useful for other Latin American countries?

We realized that in economic terms, one of the pillars of its public policy which focuses solely on the reduction of harvests, represented 95% of the total budget of this public policy. The message for the rest of Latin America is: stop spending money on strategies that don’t work and have no real impact on the transformation of communities affected by the war on drugs!

It is 4.2 billion pesos, an utterly ridiculous figure spent over 4 years supposedly to achieve a goal of reducing hectares of coca crops which, in real terms, has no impact. Year after year, we had a president who told us: “this year, we reduced the harvest; we already have fewer harvests. What’s going on? In 2018 and 2022, cocaine production increased by 108 tons. We need to change the metrics and indicators with which we measure the success of drug policies. We cannot continue to measure drug policies, particularly in farming countries, in hectares simply because grumpy certification in the fight against drugs depends on it.

There is plenty of evidence that the war on drugs has failed. Organizations working on drug policy reform have made evidence their primary tool. However, things do not change. So what is the real power of proof?

It should have more power than them because it’s been around for years and it’s substantiated, substantiated, substantiated, but still unused. Power also rests on who we give proof of using it. We, for example, have a very special case. There was a member of the ruling party, from the right wing. She was a young congresswoman who could perfectly change her position if you gave her some proof. And that has led her to be one of the biggest allies in debates about drug policy reform. So there’s no point giving the proof to someone who doesn’t care. These days you can’t just send in an article to read because people don’t like to read anymore; we need to think about how quickly evidence can get into people’s heads so they can use it in public action or policy.

At Elementa, you highlighted that you also work with private companies alongside civil society. What role could private companies play in drug policy reform?

A standard. For example, they could play a role in regulation that genuinely includes those affected by the ban. The regulation of the medicinal uses of cannabis has many companies here in Colombia, with a lot of foreign capital, but now we ask that the businessmen include the peasant of the region where they have come to grow their marijuana crops. Additionally, sales should include taxes to repair those affected by the war on drugs. Finally, there must be one addressee: people in communities affected by the war on drugs.

In Elementa reporting, you recently talked about the milestone that the Minimum Dose Law set in Colombia. However, all statistics indicate that in all subsequent years there has been the same criminalization of users. Is this a legislative milestone when in practice criminalization has remained?

Yes. It is an important step, a change and an example. Every time I talk about drugs in another country, they ask me about this sentence. But I believe that we cannot leave change to legislators or decision-makers alone. We have to own the changes and our rights because we can’t think that just because the pain exists doesn’t mean they’re going to comply. Of course, we would like it to be so, but we must know the rights we have in order to appropriate them and validate them in practice. I’m not saying that now the responsibility lies with the consumer, but it’s a whole. It’s about taking our rights so they can’t take them away from me. However, we believe that there must also be massive changes in the institutions, especially in the police, which is the institution that comes face to face with the person who uses drugs.

What potential does Latin America have for global drug policies? What can Latin America offer the world in drug policy?

A lot of experiences related mainly to the South American phenomenon of having a large number of cultures and how we have been seen and stigmatized for decades for having plants. The doors have been closed to us and they judge us when we go to other countries. It still happens at airports and at immigration, just to be Colombian. No one like Latin Americans can understand what it means to be stigmatized for coming from a reality linked to the existence of marvelous plants with enormous potential. There, I also believe that there is a huge opportunity and a lesson. In other words, we have Colombia, the country with the highest number of coca leaf crops, and we know very little on the coca leaf in the search.

What is your analysis of the position regarding the anti-drug policies that President Gustavo Petro promotes at the national, regional and international levels?

President Petro’s position not only demonstrates a recognition of the need to reverse drug policy, but also has a reality-oriented narrative of the damage the war on drugs has wrought in Colombia and the countries of Latin America with disproportionate effects on specific populations that have historically been discriminated against and oppressed. However, it is important that the Latin American allies join this position because, ultimately, the ideal would be to have a sort of “team” or “united bloc” in favor of the reform or even the revision of international treaties .

What is Latin America missing in its understanding of global drug policy reform?

We must respond to the international reality. We need to understand that the paradigm is changing and it is not right for us to fall behind. The consuming community, the cultivating community, the international community, is screaming at us, and there is no point in losing our chance to join this change that is taking place on an international scale.

*Raúl Lescano Méndez is editor and co-founder of Proyecto Soma, a harm reduction group based in Peru. You can discover their work hereand on instagram, Facebook and Twitter.