Legalizing Drugs: Why Some Latin American Leaders Are OK With It

BY Larisa Epatko  April 16, 2012 at 3:13 PM EDT


President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos head to a press conference at the Summit of the Americas. Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

In Latin American countries where drug violence rages, leaders are increasingly pushing for a dialogue on drug policy and raising the option of decriminalizing drugs.

“Basically, most Latin American leaders today say that the war on drugs — the hard-line approach where you go after the narcos and try to wipe out the coca bushes — isn’t really working, and they want to look for another way,” said John Otis, GlobalPost’s reporter in Bogota, Colombia.

“Ten years ago, it would have been almost blasphemous to go against U.S. policy and say ‘no, I want to take a softer approach toward drugs’,” he said. “But now almost every president in the region is saying ‘this isn’t working’” and they need to try something else.”

The crackdown on criminal cartels in Mexico, for example, launched when President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths and had little impact on drug trafficking along the border with the United States, some say. Now the Mexican-based drug cartels are moving south into Central America, and those countries are being used as shipping points for drugs moving through Mexico and into the United States, said Otis — and several Central and South American presidents, including Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and retired Army Gen. Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, are saying “wait a minute.”

The drug issue came up Saturday at the sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, where President Obama reiterated the U.S. stance that “legalization is not the answer” though he said he was open to dialogue.

Such a major change in drug policy, however, would have to involve several countries at a time, said Otis. “If you’ve got one country saying ‘OK, we’re going to legalize,’ you might have that country becoming a magnet for drug users and it could create all kinds of problems.” Like trade policies, “you need to try to get everybody on board to come up with a common policy,” he said.

And not all Latin American countries are on board. Peru’s President Ollanta Humala “has privately ruled out legalizing cocaine production or consumption, according to Ricardo Soberon, his former anti-drugs czar,” writes Simeon Tegel of GlobalPost:

“I knew legalization was not an option so I focused on other areas,” says Soberon. He opted for the “reduction” of coca crops rather than “eradication.” In practice, that meant broadening the approach from soldiers searching for and destroying coca plants to helping impoverished growers switch to alternative crops. Soberon also targeted the chemical ingredients and money laundering that are key to the drugs trade.

Read GlobalPost’s full series on the question of legalizing drugs.

The issue of combating drugs likely will come up again, including at the 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States from June 3 to 5 in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

On Friday’s NewsHour, Ray Suarez got two views from Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance and Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation on the issue of legalizing some drugs:

In other Summit of the Americas news, Presidents Obama and Santos announced that a free trade agreement with Colombia, which the U.S. Congress approved last year, would take effect May 15. The deal will increase significantly the number of U.S. and Colombian exports that are duty-free.

But other issues remained unresolved, including whether to include Cuba in future summits, which the United States and Canada oppose because it is not a democracy.

One positive aspect of the trip that Otis said was somewhat overlooked amid drug policy talk and allegations that some Secret Service agents hired prostitutes was President Obama’s own overnight stay in Colombia.

“That’s the first time a U.S. president has actually overnighted in Colombia for about a half-century, and that points to how security has really improved in Colombia” over the past decade in the areas of guerilla activity and drug trafficking, said Otis.

“That’s led to a big boom in foreign investment and very nice economic growth here over the past decade, so Colombia’s actually doing quite well now while other parts of the world are going through economic recessions,” he said. “Colombia has become a good news story recently when it’s been sort of all bad news for such a long time.”

We’ll have more about the allegations against the Secret Service agents on Monday’s NewsHour broadcast.

The NewsHour has a partnership with the international news website GlobalPost. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.