Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


International Relations

First Advisor's Name

Félix E. Martín

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Eduardo Gamarra

Second Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Third Advisor's Name

Erin Kimball Damman

Third Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Fourth Advisor's Name

Terrence Peterson

Fourth Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member

Fifth Advisor's Name

Susanne Zwingel

Fifth Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Member


Drug Policy, South America, International Norms, Norm Advocacy, Norm Contestation, Prohibition, Harm Reduction, War on Drugs

Date of Defense



The present dissertation investigates how the advocacy and contestation of international norms related to the production and use of psychoactive substances affected drug policy decisions in South America since 1971. The goal is to provide a more complete account of why most states in the region are sticking to prohibitionist policy models, despite their evident failure and an international context that has become more favorable to the exploration of alternative policies. At the same time, it seeks to detect some of the factors that enabled countries to move towards a framework of harm reduction, prohibition’s main competitor in international drug policy debates.

The theoretical part of this dissertation delineates that international norms, and their advocacy and contestation, affect policy choices primarily by changing the domestic and international incentives for governments to act according to the norms’ parameters. In line with this argument, the three case studies on Uruguay, Ecuador, and Peru reveal that, rather than responding to specific drug-related problems, considerations about power, material benefits, and international standing have driven most policy decisions. While the motivations behind drug policy changes are strikingly similar, case-specific constellations of incentives, actors, events, and factors related to political cultures and systems, help explain differences in outcomes.

Despite the multiplicity of processes leading to different choices, the three cases illustrate several tendencies and resemblances, which contribute to a more complete understanding of the drug policy field in South America. Most importantly, in contrast to previous studies and popular narratives that tend to blame the U.S. for South America’s drug policy failures, this dissertation emphasizes that key actors from South America not only accepted drug war policies but actively promoted prohibition and militarization. Through the emphasis of South American agency this dissertation offers a new historical contextualization of the war on drugs, which helps to understand why prohibition remains popular today. Given prohibition’s popularity and embeddedness in institutional cultures, policy flexibilization were often catalyzed by events that caused large audiences to sympathize with victims of repressive drug policies as well as specific political junctures that allowed for effective local advocacy of alternative policy models.





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