A new report says that shifting socioeconomic conditions in Cuba will likely force the country to revamp its drug policy, raising questions about the efficacy of various potential reforms.

The December 2017 report from the Brazil-based Igarapé Institute says that Cuba’s longtime commitment to a multifaceted approach to drug control has helped the island nation avoid the high levels of drug trade-related violence and problematic drug consumption that have plagued many other Latin American countries.

Indeed, Cuba has consistently boasted one of the region’s lowest homicide rates, averaging between 5 and 6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants annually. According to the report, this success stems in part from the government’s combination of drug prevention and treatment efforts with the use of punitive sanctions for drug-related crimes as well as cooperation with partner nations on drug interdiction efforts.

However, similar drug prevention strategies have failed elsewhere throughout Latin America. According to the report, this suggests that other factors — such as the island’s economic isolation and the sparse disposable income of its citizens — have contributed to Cuba’s success in thwarting drug-related violence and problematic drug use.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

Now, these circumstances are changing. As Cuba becomes more integrated internationally, the report argues, socioeconomic shifts will likely prompt a change in the country’s drug prevention efforts.

The report warns that if Cuba continues to “grow and diversify its foreign trade” and move towards a “mixed-market model,” a series of economic and social transformations could follow that would increase the presence of drugs on the island.

For example, the report suggests that greater foreign trade could put Cubans in touch with recreational drug cultures from overseas, challenging prevailing views about drug control. Moreover, a mixed-market economic model could exacerbate domestic inequalities, potentially compelling citizens to enter into the illegal drug trade and repurpose a “well-established context of informal markets and back-channel networks” to distribute drugs, the report notes.

These developments would come as Cuban anti-drug officials say the country is seeing a rise in drug trafficking. Officials link the trend to the January 2017 decision by former US President Barack Obama to rescind a longstanding immigration policy known as “wet foot, dry foot.” They say the end of the program was detrimental to human smuggling networks and likely incentivized them to move into other illicit activities like drug trafficking.

Cuban officials seized 4.8 metric tons of drugs in 2017, more than the total amount of drugs seized in 2015 and 2016, according to press reportsMoreover, Cuban customs authorities reported 94 cases of individuals trying to smuggle drugs into the country either for trafficking purposes or for personal consumption in 2017, the highest number recorded in the last five years, according to local press reports.

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The Igarapé report argues that the socioeconomic shifts engendered by Cuba’s increasing opening to the rest of the world will likely force the government to rethink its current drug control approach. And the effectiveness of those reforms hinges largely on whether authorities double down on heavy-handed tactics or implement more progressive policies.

Report author Isabella Bellezza-Smull writes that officials will need to “carefully consider” how to update Cuba’s current drug policies, and that they should use the country’s “robust public health, educational, and community-based institutions” to pursue more progressive approaches to drug prevention.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cuba

However, if officials resort to more heavy-handed approaches like increased criminalization and harsher penalties, Bellezza-Smull warns that Cuba may soon face the same challenges as other Latin American countries “savaged” by the war on drugs.

The relationship between Cuba and the United States will likely play a major role in the unfolding of potential drug reforms on the island.

The United States and Cuba see eye to eye on very few issues, but the two nations have had a long history of successful anti-drug cooperation. However, in June 2017, current US President Donald Trump vowed to backtrack on Obama’s efforts to normalize bilateral relations with Cuba, which could jeopardize the Caribbean nation’s anti-drug efforts.

Bellezza-Smull writes that Cuba has “long highlighted its tough-on-drugs” tactics, including punitive sanctions and interdiction efforts, to the United States, which has traditionally favored such strategies. But if relations continue to sour during the Trump administration, Cuba may lose the incentive to continue to emphasize such measures, and in fact be more likely to head in a more progressive direction without pressure from the United States.

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