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Obama’s Colombia Visit Renews Call to Retool U.S. Drug Policy

April 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As President Obama joins the weekend Summit of the Americas in Colombia, he may hear renewed calls to legalize some drugs. Ray Suarez gets two views from Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance and Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to a summit of Latin American leaders that could produce a debate about legalizing some drugs.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, drug lords have been paraded to prisons in recent years. And police have stepped up arrests and seizures of illegal drugs, most bound for the large and wealthy U.S. drug market.

Still, drug violence has steadily increased, giving rise to calls for legalization of small quantities of marijuana. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the topic this week, as he prepared to host the Summit of the Americas this weekend.

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, Colombian president (through translator): That is not the main subject of this summit, and it shouldn’t be. Will we discuss it? Yes, because that is the will of the majority of the countries that are attending.

RAY SUAREZ: Six of the attending nations, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Uruguay, have already legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

I don't think that we're going to legalize cocaine, methamphetamines. And marijuana, you couldn't even pass a referendum in California at this point. It's a longer processRay Walser, Heritage Foundation

The United States has remained steadfast in opposing legalization since President Nixon began the war on drugs in the early 1970s. Last month, visiting Mexico, Vice President Biden said there was no possibility that view would change. And earlier this month, President Obama praised Mexico’s ongoing battle against the drug cartel.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: President Calderon has shown great courage in standing up to the traffickers.

RAY SUAREZ: But an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in Mexican drug violence since 2006. And when Mexican President Felipe Calderon visited the U.S. Congress two years ago, he urged Americans to curb their appetite for drugs.

FELIPE CALDERON, former Mexican President: We cannot ignore the fact that the challenge to our security has roots on both sides of the border. At the end of the day, its origin is the high demand for drugs here and in other places.

RAY SUAREZ: President Obama may hear that point again, as well as the call to legalize drugs, as he joins 32 other leaders convening for the summit in Colombia.

Two views now on the Latin American drug debate and the U.S. response. Ethan Nadelmann is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates decriminalization. Ray Walser is a former career Foreign Service officer and senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Ethan Nadelmann, let me start with you. When the president journeys down to Colombia and begins the meeting, will he find sentiment hemispherically as radically shifted from earlier meetings? Or is it just a few leaders who have changed their public posture?

ETHAN NADELMANN, executive director, Drug Policy Alliance: Well, I will tell you, Ray, this is really an historic gathering in many respects, because it’s the first major gathering of heads of state at which the issue of alternatives to the failed prohibitionist policies is going to be on the agenda.

He’s not going to be hearing people say, legalize all drugs tomorrow, or anything like that. What he is going to hear is a coalition of presidents led by President Santos, the Colombian president, who is the host of this conference, and Otto Perez Molina, the former general who became the president of Guatemala, and a host of others saying, open this discussion up. We need to devote the same attention to looking at alternatives to the failed drug war policies, including the different forms of decriminalization and legal regulation, as have been devoted to the failed drug war policies of the past.

So it’s a call for an opening of the new dialogue and a new discussion. And the fact that Vice President Biden when he went down there last month, he said the U.S. is against legalizing, but we now acknowledge this is a legitimate subject for discussion, that resonated throughout Latin America.

So Latin American leaders are looking for something regarding an opening by the president to say that this is a legitimate subject and the U.S. will participate in good faith.

RAY SUAREZ: Ray Walser, a legitimate subject for conversation, but is there any signal from the United States that they’re looking to change their policy?

RAY WALSER, Heritage Foundation: No, I don’t think — I think that the other part of the Biden message was, he said, yes, there is a conversation, and we know where that conversation will end. And it will end that legalization is not the route that the United States or other countries should follow.

So — and I think another concern is, it is technically not on the agenda of the summit, but it is going to be, I think, a side conversation. I agree that the presidents have finally come together and want to talk to the United States. But I don’t think that we’re going to see any sort of resolution or a coalition.

In my mind, for example, it’s like raising U.S. immigration policy at the Summit of the Americas. It just really doesn’t have a great deal of traction.

RAY SUAREZ: Ethan Nadelmann, we know what the effect of the war on drugs has been in the United States. What effect does it have in a country like Guatemala, let’s say?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, look, in the United States it has led to the largest incarceration rate in the world. It’s led to the largest incarceration rate of any democratic society in history.

In places like Central America, Guatemala, other parts in the region, it’s like the days of Chicago — it’s like Chicago during the days of Al Capone and prohibition times 50. That’s part of what is prompting some of these leaders to speak out.

And, you know, it’s also, they’re building on something, because what has happened over the last four or five years is that more and more voices have spoken out. You had the three former presidents of Brazil and Colombia and Mexico, Cardoso, Gaviria, and Zedillo, heading up for a Latin American commission and then a global commission calling to break the taboo on considering alternatives to the failed war on drugs.

They enlisted George Shultz and Paul Volcker and the former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, the former E.U. defense chief. So there’s business — people in the business community, the archbishops of Colombia and Guatemala, military leaders, business leaders, social justice leaders are all stepping up.

So what is really new is that there has been a taboo for the last 40 years on any sort of discussion. The U.S. government has suppressed it, has ignored it, and they will continue to try to derail it and distort this debate.

But the fact of the matter is this genie is now out of the bottle for the first time ever, and this conversation is going to continue.

RAY SUAREZ: Ray Walser, is it fair to say that the leaders who have spoken out in favor of some form of decriminalization are historically no softies on drugs? Weren’t the leaders of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Colombia among the leaders of their countries’ anti-drug efforts?

RAY WALSER: Oh, absolutely.

I mean, let’s take Colombia. Look what — the battle against the cartels in the ’90s, the battle against narco-terrorism of the FARC. Central America wasn’t necessarily a big battleground for transnational crime until sort of Mexico got tough on the traffickers, pushed it down into Central America.

I agree, we are the market. We have to do things about it. Legalizing marijuana might take a marginal amount of profit away from transnational criminal organizations. And that I think is really where the conversation needs to be. How do you build up institutions? How do you tackle these very violent gangs which use — yes, drugs is one conduit, but they’re going sort of morph into the continued threat they are to the security of Central American states, to Mexico.

So I think it has to be a broader conversation. But I agree that we need the White House to step up to speak about the issue. And I think that we need to look at ourselves. I mean, I don’t think that we’re going to legalize cocaine, methamphetamines. And marijuana, you couldn’t even pass a referendum in California at this point.

It’s a longer — it’s a long process, I agree. The U.S. public opinion, lawmakers could change. I don’t think it’s a taboo subject in the United States, but I think it’s one that needs a much broader sort of discussion.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, gentlemen, we’re almost out of time, but I’d like to hear from you both briefly before we go on whether the U.S. risks reduced cooperation in the war on drugs in hemispheric terms if it doesn’t listen to what these other hemispheric leaders have to say on modifying drug policy — Ethan.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah.

Well, I would say the U.S. does have to listen, because I partially agree with the other Ray here. It’s a two-track discussion. One is how we take out and destroy these criminal organizations. But everybody knows you can’t defeat what is essentially a dynamic global commodities market, which is why we need to put the alternatives on the table.

And that includes the legalization of marijuana. Public opinion is moving that way in the U.S. It includes the decriminalization of small amounts of possession of any drug. And it includes looking for other ways to take the illegal market out of the underground and try to move it in one way or another, in controlled fashion, into a legal regime.

RAY SUAREZ: And Ray Walser.

RAY WALSER: Again, I think we need sort of the broad discussion. We need to bring it back home.

We’re going to look at what occurs in this — this coming year. And, for cooperation, it’s a two-way — again, it’s a two-way street. They do want U.S. counterdrug cooperation. So they have to sort of listen to us. And on the other hand, as they pointed out earlier with Calderon and others, as long as they see the United States as a net exporter of insecurity, it is going to create problems in Central America, Mexico, and in the Andean Ridge.

RAY SUAREZ: Ray Walser and Ethan Nadelmann, gentlemen, thank you both.