LiveAtState: Drug Policy Reform in the Hemisphere

William R. Brownfield
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Washington, DC
June 26, 2013

This video is also available with closed captioning on YouTube.

PETER VELASCO: Welcome to Live at State, the U.S. State Department’s interactive format on the Internet and by video, one of its platforms for dialogue with the international media. And welcome also to journalists and guests that join us today. I am in the studio with the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Mr. William Brownfield. He will be answering your questions on the reform of drug policy in the hemisphere. Welcome Secretary.

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Thank you very much Peter, is a joy and pleasure to be with you here in Live at State, as usual this morning.

PETER VELASCO: Well, participants must submit their questions in the bottom of the window titled "Questions to the Official". If at any time during the talk you have problems sending your questions, you can send us an email through and we will add your questions to the list. We will try to answer as many questions as possible in the time we have and if you want more information and the latest news about the Department of State you can follow us via Twitter, the address is @INLBureau and also @USAenEspanol; also you can follow us on Facebook at So let's start with the first question, just a moment. The first question: How does the United States respond to calls for a new approach in the fight against the double challenges of trafficking and consumption of drugs, given that 40 years after the launch of the drug war there are few positive results?

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Well, good starting point, Peter, and thanks for the question and also thanks to the distinguished representatives of the media who are with us this morning. Look, first of all, happy World Drug Day. It is particularly appropriate – in my humble opinion – having this conversation today, not only because it is the day designated by the United Nations to discuss and address the issue and the problem of illicit drugs, but also because in recent months and even weeks we have had many important public conversations on the subject. A month ago – more or less – the OAS (Organization of American States) released and distributed its report on drug policy in the Western Hemisphere and presented the report in Bogota on the 17th or 18th of May – if I remember correctly – and three weeks ago the OAS General Assembly discussed as its main theme the issue of illicit drugs in the hemisphere, and the Antigua Statement offered some ideas for moving forward on this issue over the upcoming months, in addition to the efforts and activities of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), of the United Nations, the General Assembly, and the Commission of Narcotic Drugs (CND). In other words, right now there is a broad discussion on this subject, it is a good time for this conversation to take place, and as President Obama stated a little over a year in Cartagena de Indias we welcome this debate. Part of the debate, no doubt, is the way in which the United States contributes to this issue; part of that –of course– is the result of two referendums approved in the states of Colorado and Washington last November, legalizing, and I use that word specifically, not decriminalizing, but legalizing the consumption, production and cultivation of cannabis –marijuana– in the United States. Now, that's part of the debate, how is it that a country can experiment, make adjustments or modifications to its laws, but still participate in international efforts to control the abuse and trafficking of illicit drugs under the international conventions on drug control? I think this is part of the debate and I believe the United States should formulate a response and a structure that allow such experimentation, but still comply with its obligations under the conventions as well.

PETER VELASCO: Ok, we continue with another question of Monica Oblitas of Los Tiempos from Bolivia. Monica says, "Several Latin American countries have decided to promote the debate on the decriminalization of some drugs that are illegal today. The OAS has presented a paper on the subject. What is the U.S. position on the decriminalization and the document or report that has been developed by instruction of the OAS? What does America do about it? ".

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Look, the United States, just like the other 33 member states of the OAS, is a sovereign and independent country and –of course– we will control and decide on our internal and national illicit drug policies. But we have a responsibility to do so within the framework of international obligations we have undertaken as a country, and the three international conventions on illicit drug control we have ratified, the UN Conventions. That is our obligation. My answer to the question is, first, that America, like any other country in the world that complies with its obligations, must make any adjustments and modifications to national and international policy in a way that is based on evidence and science. Second, it should comply with international obligations that are in force. And third, this should not require fundamental changes in the international conventions themselves. Because Peter, think carefully about this, for ratification by the Senate of the United States a new treaty at this time would take between 30 and 40 years. Imagine, if the international community decides to develop a new convention for the control of illicit drugs, are we going to wait until 2050 to have an infrastructure accepted by and acceptable to the whole world? I don’t think so, I hope not, and I think the conventions are flexible enough to allow some adjustments or internal policy changes without having to change the entire structure. In my humble opinion, there is already a fairly broad, worldwide consensus on how we should proceed in this area of ​​illicit drug policy. One accepted principle is that the current strategy has not been a total success. In other words, no one is completely satisfied. Two, the problem is not an exclusively law enforcement issue; it is also a social issue, a health issue, an economic and developmental issue. Three, of all the communities that talk about legalization, nobody talks about legalizing anything beyond cannabis, marijuana; no one is suggesting the legalization of heroin, cocaine or methamphetamines; in other words, this discussion is limited to a small part of the entire drug universe. Four, everyone agrees that these criminal organizations are bad, no one says that the illegal drug cartels are good. Five, we all share the view that international collaboration is good, in other words, we want cooperation and we don’t want 194 countries with their own strategies totally independent of the rest of the world. And finally, the sixth and last principle accepted by consensus, each country decides its own internal and national politics. I believe that with these six principles accepted by everyone, it should be possible to formulate an acceptable political strategy on a global scale.

PETER VELASCO: Ok, following this topic a little more, another question from Monica Oblitas, of Los Tiempos from Bolivia. She asks: “In this context, how is the headway of decriminalization of the use of marijuana in states like Washington and Colorado, and in countries like Uruguay or Colombia, influencing the drug policy of President Obama?”.

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: First, of course, I would like to begin at the global level, then go down to the hemispheric level and, finally, to the national one and, regarding the U.S., to the state level. Globally, the international convention at this time includes marijuana (cannabis) as a proscribed drug, not permitted among the list of allowed drugs. We have to accept this reality in the United States as in any other country in the world. At this time, the convention does not allow it and the organization responsible for implementing the convention, the International Narcotics Control Board, has been pretty clear with us sending three, actually, four letters to Secretaries of State and the Attorney General of the United States, informing us of this. Right now, marijuana is also an illegal drug under Federal Law in the United States; in other words, while there are 18 U.S. states that allow marijuana use for medical purposes and two states –Washington and Colorado– which have decided that, before the end of 2013, they will allow the use of marijuana for personal and recreational purposes, at this time there is a conflict between the eventual laws of the two states and Federal Law of the United States. I believe that over the next 5 or 6 months, federal authorities and state authorities will have to reach an accommodation to ensure that the laws are consistent and coherent between federal and state authorities. I hope that this process will ultimately strengthen positive elements that we have seen in the United States over the past 10 years, such as reducing the use of illicit drugs, reducing violence and crime in the United States related to illicit drug abuse; in other words, positive trends that seek to counterbalance some of negative trends in the last 20 years, such as the number of people jailed for possession or consumption of illegal drugs. Ultimately, the challenge that we have in the United States is to seek the proper balance or to reinforce the positives, rectify the negatives and eliminate the differences between Federal and the state Law.

PETER VELASCO: Ok, the next question comes to us from Mexico. Juan Manuel Somoza, Millennium Group, he says: "I have understood that the United States and Cuba have collaborated from time to time on some drug trafficking cases. Does the reform of drug policy in the hemisphere imply a systematization of such collaboration?

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Look, these are tricky waters, even dangerous to some extent. I will say this: the United States is a sovereign, independent country that exists on this planet. Cuba is an independent and sovereign country, too. We are neighbors with a separation of only 100 kilometers from the southeastern United States and the territory of the Republic of Cuba. We have mutual interests in ensuring that our two nations, our two societies, do not become victims of illicit drug trafficking and drug abuse, and in areas where we can collaborate, the Government of the United States is willing to collaborate. It doesn’t mean that there are not profound differences between the two countries, the two governments, the two systems, the two nations and the two societies. But of course, in areas where there is agreement and the possibility of collaboration –of course– we want to minimize the impact of illicit drugs on citizens of the United States and the Cuban government has the same right on the island of Cuba, and as such there are opportunities for collaboration.

PETER VELASCO: Ok, I also want to remind you –again– if you want more information and the latest news about the U.S. Department of State you can follow us via Twitter, the address is @INLBureau and also @USAenEspanol; also you can follow us on Facebook at Let's go back to something we were talking about before. Sofia Menchu ​​of Guatemala newspaper, asks whether the United States will support the legalization of drugs or marijuana only.

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Right now the position of the Federal Government of the United States has not changed in the last year and a half, from the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012, and that's why we welcome this debate on legalization and other changes to international policies, but the United States has examined and considered the legalization and has decided that for us, and we are only talking about our nation, this will not work, it will not serve the interests of the the United States. However, what has changed? And what has happened since that time, April of last year? First, two U.S. states have decided and voted in a referendum to legalize marijuana. It is a reality that we have to confront. Two, the OAS has submitted a report with some hypothetical scenarios for the future, and this is a reality. And third, the General Assembly of the OAS has decided to review new ideas for the control of drugs and, specifically, illicit drugs, throughout the hemisphere, during a special session next year. These are realities that we have to examine. The United States as a sovereign and independent country, has the right to decide its own drug control policy within the borders of the United States, exactly as Guatemala has the same right and sovereign authority, but we also owe the obligation to comply with the conventions and international treaties that we have ratified over the past 40 or 50 years. We have to find a pragmatic and moderate solution; in other words, NGOs, foundations and private citizens have the right to contribute to the controversy, to provoke debate and ultimately examine all possibilities. But when governments enter into conversation, they should seek genuine solutions. My opinion is that the real solution in the future will be in the middle of two extremes. At one end, there are the “legalizers,” who say in a fairly simplistic fashion –in my humble opinion– that legalizing all illicit drugs would solve the problem overnight. At the other extreme there are those who I would call “the prohibitionists,” who say we're going to forbid everything, absolutely everything, and everything must be criminalized, and in cases of violation of this prohibition then it becomes a police or criminal matter. I believe that the solution lies somewhere between these two extremes, in the middle, where there are many possibilities to explore and ponder and eventually produce a solution based on evidence and science, respecting the sovereign rights of each and every country, which takes into account that no society wants to tolerate the abuse of illicit drugs, not because it is a law enforcement issue but because it is a social issue, it is a matter of education, it is a matter for the future of our children, it is a public health issue and that is why no society in the world would want to increase or contribute to the spread of illicit drug use. It should be possible -- I say this to our audiences and all the distinguished representatives of the media who are on line with us -- it should be possible to develop a solution that eventually accepts all these principles and would advance this debate in a pragmatic way in the upcoming months.

PETER VELASCO: Well, talking a little bit about consumption, Eduardo Vasquez Becker, from, says that it is often heard that if there was no drug demand in the United States, in Latin America there would be no drug production. In my opinion they are looking to subtract moral authority from the United States in its fight against drugs.

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Well, I’m absolutely not criticizing anyone for their position, but it makes sense that if there is no consumption, there would be no demand; if there is no demand, there is no supply. Okay, but you can say that about anything, if there is no money, no clothes; if there is no passion there is no homicide, etc., etc., etc. Look, I offer a historic figure certified by the same media that has followed this process for the past 30 years. In the last seven years, cocaine and methamphetamine in the United States have been reduced by 50%; in other words there is 50% less demand for cocaine and methamphetamine in the United States since 2006. My question, then, is whether listeners see a 50% reduction of violence, crime and criminality in the countries of Mexico, Central America and South America? I don’t think so, and why not? Because this is not a matter that depends exclusively on the United States. What we have seen during those 7 years? Reduced consumption of cocaine and derived products of the coca leaf in the United States, but increase in some South American countries, such as Brazil or Argentina, increase in Western European countries, and to some degree increase in some Asian countries; in other words, we live in a global community and the United States accepts its responsibility to contribute to the solution, but to say that the solution is exclusively and totally in the hands of the United States is a little bit simplistic. We are in this effort as a global effort, each country has its share of responsibility and its ability to collaborate and cooperate in this effort. No matter if the country is a consumer, transit country or country of production, we are all responsible for the problem and the solution also requires global collaboration.

PETER VELASCO: Ok, Ramon Sancho, from Agence France Presse in Venezuela asks: For the U.S., what does the comprehensive anti-drugs strategy adopted in the OAS Declaration in Antigua actually signify?

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Look, we accept that since the Declaration was by consensus, the Government of the United States endorses the Declaration of Antigua, which states that the hemisphere and the 34 members of the OAS will review the policy at a special session during the coming year or, possibly, in 2015. The Government of the United States believes that this should be incorporated into the process by which the OAS decides its own drug strategy for the next five years beginning on January 1st, 2016, that is, through the end of 2021, which is something that the OAS,, through its anti-drug agency, CICAD (Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission), does every five years. The logic is that this special session of the OAS should make use of the process of debate in developing the next strategy for the five years beginning in 2016. If so, I think that the special session will offer something of value, something positive for the hemisphere during the coming years. Of course, they should consider adjustments and modifications to existing policies, why? Because the world is changing, criminal organizations are changing, consumer countries, transit and producer countries change, and –of course– the new strategy should be to accept and accommodate these changes, instead of saying we're going to start from point zero, which I think would be a mistake to ignore lessons learned and progress made in several areas that we've seen in the last 10 or 15 years, we should concentrate on the formulation of a new strategy for the hemisphere for the next five years to come.

PETER VELASCO: So those five years would be 2016-2021?

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Yes, from January 1st, 2016 to January 1st, 2021.


WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: And that is something that the OAS has done every five years for the last 20 years.

PETER VELASCO: Very well, Giovanni Contreras asks: how do you evaluate the current strategy of Mexico and Central America against drugs which, basically, has focused onstrong military action? Have they paid off?

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Look, first of all, I would like to suggest that this analysis of current strategies in Mexico and Central America does not represent the totality of what is being done there. For example, policy and collaboration between Mexico and the United States over the past six years are reflected in the Merida Initiative, which is a four-part strategy, one part, no doubt, is trying to attack criminal organizations, but there are three additional parts. The first is to strengthen the capacity of government institutions. Second, to establish a modern border between the two countries; in other words, better control of goods and people passing from north to south or south to north. And the last part of this strategy is an effort to contribute to social and economic development of communities in Mexico, to offer them a more promising and legally safeguarded future, eliminating their dependence on criminal organizations. In other words, it is a slightly more sophisticated strategy than simply attacking criminal organizations. Through CARSI (Central America Regional Security Initiative), our policy toward Central America, the strategies are also dedicated to the reduction of violence and increased social, educational, health and economy development and investment in the region, not just against illicit drugs. My analysis of the situation so far is based, in part, on what we learned in Colombia, during the 90s and the early years of this century, that in the early years of any strategy we will inevitably see criminal organizations, the drug cartels, reacting in a violent manner to the pressure coming from state institutions, and what we will see for a period is more blood and violence. For poor communities and towns this situation seems much worse than in previous years, but what we learned in Colombia is that this is the rumble, the noise from drug cartels that are about to die and that is why they react in such a violent manner, indeed because they want to intimidate state institutions to stop the pressure. In my opinion, that is what we saw and what we have seen in Mexico, we are now seeing in Central America at this time. I know that's little satisfaction for individuals and communities suffering from violence at this time but in a few years I predict we will see the situation of violence much improved over what we see at this time.

PETER VELASCO: Well... Eduardo Castillo, from AP Mexico asks: in the midst of the fight against the cartels in Mexico, there has been talk that the drug groups seek new Caribbean routes to smuggle drugs into the United States. Has that already occurred? And what percent of drugs is entering through Mexico?

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Look, you know that's my analysis, too. We agree on the probability of what will happen in the future and have come to that conclusion geographically speaking as well. We started 15 years ago, we and the international community, to apply pressure on criminal organizations in Colombia and saw the transfer of many of their activities to Mexico. Six years ago with absolute and total support and leadership from the Mexican government, the international community began to apply pressure on the cartels in Mexico and what we have seen in the last two or three years is the transfer of many of their activities to Central America. Starting a couple of years ago, the international community under the leadership of the Central American countries and governments within their regional system of SICA (Central American Integration System), began to apply pressure there, and what will happen? One possibility is that the cartels will abandon the drug trade and, who knows, maybe open restaurants on the beach, but that is unlikely; what is more likely is that they will seek new routes and then the allure of the Caribbean and old routes of the 80s and 90s will seem quite positive for them. Therefore, this is the reason why I say that our challenge in two or three years may not be Central America or Mexico but more and more the Caribbean. Has it already started? Maybe yes, two years ago we estimated that only 4 or 5% of the totality of illict product entering the United States passed through the Caribbean and more than 90% passing through Central America and Mexico. What last year's estimate shows is that the number has grown to 9%, still a small figure compared with 90% passing through Central America and Mexico, but 9% is double the previous year, which suggests an increased use of Caribbean and Caribbean networks as traffic routes to North America and that is why we should start thinking about this today and do some infrastructure investment today in the Caribbean to produce results in 2015 or 2016, when the logic of geography suggests cartels returning to Caribbean routes.

PETER VELASCO: Let’s focus on Mexico. Angel Villarino from Reforma asks: according to reports in U.S. newspapers like the New York Times, the DEA was not pleased by the Peña Nieto government’s new "one-stop window" policy to address issues of drug trafficking. Can you confirm or deny this statement? Can this centralization of collaboration required by the Mexican government hinder the work of the fight against drug trafficking?

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Look, my name is William Brownfield, I am the Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and, of course, I speak for my organization and on this issue I may speak for the U.S. Department of State but, of course, I cannot speak for any another part of the Government of the United States. What I can say is this: the United States of Mexico is a sovereign and independent country. The Government of Mexico has the right to decide, just as President Obama said in public during his visit to Mexico City in May of this year, the Government of Mexico decides Mexican politics and how the United States and Mexico will work in Mexico, period. Now, the logic expressed by the Mexican government is quite intelligent. They want to have a system that allows better control and coordination of our collaboration. I have no problem with that concept. The Mexican Government has indicated an interest in putting more emphasis on social, economic and social development programs in local communities, more effort at the state and municipal level and less at the Federal level, more training and education instead of equipment. I have no problem with any of these concepts. Undoubtedly, the two governments need a system that works, that allows for collaboration that is very complex and detailed, and as you know, Peter, probably no two countries in the world have more points of intersection than Mexico and the United States, we have a border of two thousand miles, more than three thousand kilometers, we have two countries where nearly 200 million people live within 100 miles of the border to the north or south, we have two countries that speak a particular language in common, called "fronterizo," a mixture of English and Spanish that is not spoken anywhere else in the world; in other words, this is an incredibly complex and delicate relationship, but also important for the two countries. At the end of the process we will reach a solution that works for both governments, Why? Because the bilateral relationship between Mexico and the United States is so important that, ultimately, we will find a solution that satisfies everyone. Again, all the ideas offered by the Government of Mexico seem to me to be entirely logical ideas, positive and acceptable. We will work together because, ultimately, we must collaborate.

PETER VELASCO: Ok, we are very grateful to all participants who have sent us questions, we have received many and unfortunately, this will be the last one. It comes to us from Guatemala, Gerardo Rafael of Centroamerica journal, asks: Experts believe that the United States must also focus on banking controls due to money laundering that finances the drug cartels; another aspect is control over trade in weapons to counter the power of drug traffickers. What can the United States do, considering that it is the largest consumer of drugs?

WILLIAM BROWNFIELD: Well, Gerardo, the truth is that I agree with the two ideas of better controls on abuse of financial systems and better controls on illicit trafficking and illegal weapons. Not sure if I agree with the suggestion that the United States is the largest consumer of illicit drugs, maybe yes, but I think we are in second place in terms of consumption of cocaine, given the changes over the past seven years. What can we do in terms of weapons and money laundering? First, we should accept as a principle the fact that in order to have a successful strategy for the control of illicit drugs, we must reach every link in the chain, from cultivation, production, transit, transportation, distribution and, ultimately, to the financing of illicit drugs. We cannot leave any link intact. I think there is more the world's governments and the international community can do to assist in financial assets efforts to ensure better flow of information between governments, better sharing of evidence on cases and judgments against institutions and individuals, and better law enforcement collaboration and monitoring of banks and other financial institutions. Regarding the issue of firearms, without a doubt, the violence caused by cartels is violence caused by these weapons, and particularly, firearms in the hands of cartels. As you know, in the United States in particular, we have a delicate legal situation vis a vis the Constitution of the United States and the Second Amendment. I will not get into that debate that has gone on for nearly 200 years, but what I will say is that there are already laws in the United States that criminalize the unlicensed export of firearms and controls that require licenses for the sale or the export of weapons, and solutions should exist in the enforcement of laws that already exist. It should be possible for pragmatic and intelligent governments to seek formulas for better collaboration and to have more effective controls on the movement of firearms within the Western Hemisphere. This should not require fundamental and constitutional changes in any of the 34 members of the OAS in the Western Hemisphere. At least, this is my proposal at this time. I think in these two areas in which Gerardo is absolutely right we should be able to work more and better in the months and years ahead.

PETER VELASCO: Okay, so this is all the time we have for today, thank you for your questions. Thank you very much to you, Mr. Brownfield, for being with us; we will have a link to the audio and video of our talk today available for use shortly after the conclusion of this program. If you wish to obtain the latest information on the U.S. Department of State you can follow us via Twitter, using @StateDept and also @USAenEspanol. We hope to talk with you again in the future and wish you a happy day. Thank you very much.