Should Latin America legalize drugs?
April 16th, 2012
02:00 PM ET

Should Latin America legalize drugs?

Editor's Note: The following text is from GlobalPost, which provides excellent coverage of world news – importantmoving and just odd.

By Alex LeffGlobalPost

When the world looks back at 2012 in the Americas, one burning debate will stand out amid the year’s usual chatter: Should Latin America legalize drugs?

What was once taboo has now got presidents talking in public and writing charged commentaries. They’re trying to frame the new drugs debate in terms that Washington - which firmly stands by the drug war solution - will understand: supply and demand.

The U.S. government says it will listen, but will not bend.

Some Latin leaders are discussing the need to experiment further with decriminalizing possession of drugs. Lawmakers are also proposing to scrap jail terms for growing coca and cannabis.

The bottom line: Softening anti-drug laws would ultimately drive down narcotics prices, advocates say, and that would crimp revenues for the deadly cartels that wreak havoc from the Andes to Mexico — and across its US border.

Though far from concrete, the push comes as Latin leaders flex their might and independent voices as Washington's influence wanes in the Americas. What's more, some of the United States' closest allies - moderates and conservatives alike - are leading the charge toward change.

Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based independent research and advocacy group, and has advised Latin American leaders on this bold policy rethink. GlobalPost caught up with him during his recent visit to a conference at Brown University.

Why that racket on legalizing drugs in Latin America?

Ethan Nadelmann: What’s emerged is a critical mass of support for opening up the debate and putting all options on the table. And all options include decriminalization, legal regulation and other alternatives to the drug war.

Why now?

One [factor] is the ongoing and mounting frustration that not just governments but many people in Latin America feel with the negative consequences of the U.S. war on drugs in Latin America. Many have concluded that there’s no way to defeat what is essentially a dynamic global commodities market.

Marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin == they are global commodities markets much in the same way that alcohol, tobacco, sugar or coffee are. So long as there is a demand, especially a significant demand in a country like the United States, there will be a supply. The demand is growing worldwide in many respects.

Latin America's push to 'legalize it'

What stands out among the consequences of the drug war?

The escalating violence in Mexico. [President Felipe] Calderon’s attempt to take on the criminal organizations. The 50,000 dead. The spread of this traffic and violence to Central America. The widespread realization that it’s only a matter of time before it floods into the Caribbean, once again, as it did back in the ‘80s.

How has the debate been shaping up?

You now have [Colombian] President Juan Manuel Santos who has, in a very cautious way, been very strategic in speaking out a bit more, looking for other allies. You have President Calderon who’s been frustrated in his relationship with the United States on this area. He came to the US last year and began to say that the US should look at ‘market alternatives’ if they were unable to reduce the demand.

You’ve had some growing movement of decriminalization of [drug] possession in countries from Mexico to Colombia to Ecuador to Brazil to Argentina.

You also have, in the last few years, the rapid growth of the drug-policy movement, activist groups like we have in the US, also spreading around Latin America.

The Argentine economy’s fuzzy math problem

And then you have the thing that finally clinched it, when President Otto Perez Molina [of Guatemala] decided shortly after he entered office to make this a priority. That really was a transformative moment. He emerged as the ally that President Santos in Colombia had been looking for.

So that wasn’t just political posturing?

Initially people were suspect about [Perez’s] motives, but it became apparent that he was serious about this, engaging it for substantive reasons and he began to clearly show a commitment on this issue and to educate himself more deeply. And then he began to make a more active effort to interact with other Central American leaders, and to interact with Santos, Calderon and the others. That is what enabled this critical mass to emerge.

These are bold proposals. Has it helped that Washington's dominance seems to have waned in the region?

The sense of fear and intimidation that many of these governments feel regarding the United States has diminished. There’s a growing sense of independence and willingness to speak their mind and not be so under the thumb of the U.S. government as they were in the past. Mexico, Brazil, Colombia … many of these countries have booming economies, there’s a greater sense of independence.

Are these leaders just talking about decriminalizing marijuana possession, or something else?

They’re putting forward different ideas about how you deal with bigger problems of the large-scale production and trafficking of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. If you look at the spectrum you’ll have somebody like former President of Mexico Vicente Fox saying clearly the time has come to legalize all of it. You’ll have somebody like [Colombia’s] Santos giving an interview to the Guardian saying legalize cannabis, and maybe cocaine too — but he’s just kind of floating an idea.

Is this the first time we’re hearing 'legalize it' from Latin America?

This debate has been bungling around for many years. And over the years, more and more people have been exposed to the arguments regarding the failures of a prohibitionist drug-control policy and the potential benefits of an alternative.

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy — chaired by former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso [of Brazil], Cesar Gaviria [of Colombia] and Ernesto Zedillo [of Mexico] — released its report in early 2009 and that was really a breakthrough. These were three distinguished presidents all from the center, center-right of the political spectrum, joined by many other prominent ministers and intellectuals and publishers, saying we need to move in a new direction, we need to break the taboo, to understand the European harm-reduction approach better, to move in a direction of decriminalization of cannabis. That planted a lot of seeds in Latin America.

Peru backs the US drug war

That was followed up by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which issued its report in June of last year. It was not just presidents. They also had former Secretary of State George Shultz, [ex-chair of the Federal Reserve] Paul Volcker, Kofi Annan, [Virgin entrepreneur] Richard Branson and a whole range of distinguished people. That report went a step further. They talked about experiments in legal regulation of cannabis, a whole range of other innovative strategies. You had … distinguished folks legitimizing this thing.

Did you work on those reports?

I was an adviser to both.

How far has this debate come today?

For most of [the leaders involved], including Santos and Perez Molina, right now it’s more about sparking a discussion. It’s about saying ‘we spent the last 20, 30, 40 years experimenting with different drug war options — interdiction efforts, law enforcement strategies — and look at the mess we have today. We need to systematically look at the alternatives. We need to have government officials interacting with experts in public health, criminal justice and economics.’

There’s a growing consensus that the movement toward legal regulation of cannabis is perhaps inevitable and certainly the right thing to do. There’s also an emerging consensus that the personal possession of smaller amounts of any drug should be decriminalized. That’s important because [criminalizing possession] basically results in the arrest and incarceration of large numbers of people who are mostly poor and of darker skin.

It’s not that they’re saying legalize drugs tomorrow, it’s the provocative sort of statement that gets people paying attention, and realizing that we better start talking about this in earnest.

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Topics: Drugs

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soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Todd Hunger

    I stopped going to this site after CNN kept Gov. Gary Johnson out of the Rep. debate. Finally, some good reporting from CNN on the fiscal and personal disaster that we call the "drug War on Americans". End Cannabis prohibition President Obama and STOP Raiding medical cannabis facilities in legal states!!

    April 16, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  2. Xira

    About time.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    We have these perpetual debates in Europe too. As always there are pros and cons. The question is whether booze is less harmful than drugs?

    April 16, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  4. JAL

    Make pot legal during summer months only, or in Vegas, or something restricted like that. I dunno.

    April 16, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  5. Kuato Lives

    Washington will never end the drug war because it is too profitable for the plutocrats and their corporate masters who control our once great nation.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Reply
    • Joel

      That doesn't even make any sense.

      April 17, 2012 at 9:01 am | Reply
  6. keith

    I have no problem with legalizing pot but the problem is people will not stop there. Meth, heroin and cocaine should be illegal because of the damage it does to an addicted individual. If pot was completely legalized the DEA could focus on the "problem" drugs. As it stands they can arrest small time dealers and users (mostly pot users who pose no real threat to themselves or society) who have a small amount and make it look like they are doing something about the drug problem. If their only target were the supply chains for meth, coke, heroin, etc. they could, hopefully, make a dent in that problem. Pot users are an easy target cause they are nonviolent and the DEA knows the people trafficking harder drugs play for keeps. K.

    April 16, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Reply
    • ShadyJ

      I believe that ALL drugs should be legalized. the "war on drugs" is a losing battle, and those who want tto use illegal substances, will still use them regardless. If you eleminate the black market, there are no drug wars. Example, the prohibition of alcohol gave the italian mafia its rise to fame. when it was legalized, that hurt their pockets. We need to look at the past and learn....

      April 17, 2012 at 9:13 am | Reply
    • nookster

      Never, ever has a drug being illegal stopped anyone from trying it or using it. In Portugal where all drugs have been decriminalized, drug use has dropped across the board. Tobacco use is legal but its use has been declining over the past few decades. This drug war is about profit to multiple bueracratic agencies in the U.S. phony self-rightous politicans who will do or say anything for a vote.

      April 17, 2012 at 9:54 am | Reply
  7. Roe

    If some of the drugs are legalized it will take the money away form the drug cartels and end the needless deaths south of our border due to the demand from the people in America who think their little pot smoking is not hurting anyone. We owe the rise of organized crime in our country to Prohibition when do gooders tried to make us a perfect society. If my memory serve me right the consumption of alcohol rose during and after Prohibition.

    April 16, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Reply
    • Rz

      Yes, there are pros and cons to all of it. But it's a proven fact that the gov can never beat it. Surprised they haven't taken control of it a long time ago. Or have they and we just don't know it ?

      April 17, 2012 at 12:46 am | Reply
  8. George Patton

    No, because the use of drugs like heroin and cocaine is just as detrimental to people in Latin America as it is to people here in the United States. Heroin, for instance, never produces good results for anybody nor does cocaine. Marihuana, on the other hand, should be used only for medical purposes.

    April 16, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Reply
    • Joel

      Wow, what a blanket, and untrue, assertion provided without any evidence.

      April 17, 2012 at 9:03 am | Reply
      • Bobby G!

        With a blogname like that... makes sense.

        April 17, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • nookster

      Millions and millions around the world are starving to death daily and most people could care less. But let a drug addict destroy themselves and then watch the hypocrits come out of the woodwork spouting the same old tired drug war policy that has been force feed to them for the last 50 years.

      April 17, 2012 at 10:02 am | Reply
      • Sandra

        I agree with decriminalization. Marijuana, in particular, and for recreational use. Heck, grow it at home, that way, you know if its organic. In addition, if it was taxed like alcohol, people have been legally making their own wine and beer for years, with little or no problem. Taxes come in, whether through the sales of the drug itself, or from purchasing equipment, soil, lights, fertilizers, and other necessary gardening tools. The government gets its cut, without hurting people or waging yet another immoral war. On its own people.

        April 17, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  9. Rob

    South American gov'ts should just say screw you to the U.S. and just do what they want. Who are we to tell them not to legalize or decriminalize. Our govt is stupid enough not to have done it yet. Wake up and get real, cannabis should be legal.

    April 17, 2012 at 8:30 am | Reply
    • Joaquin

      It would be useless, since the US is the main market to which Latin American drug dealers supply. The prices in the US will still be high because the cost of supplying would still be quite high, so it would still be very profitable, except that they won´t be bothered by the local police anymore. Inter-cartel violence would still go on

      June 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  10. John

    There is way to much money to be made in the illegal trade of drugs by both the govt and the cartels. There are many levels involved and that doesn't even include the prison business in the US. We have so many people incarcerated that it matches the population of connecticut. We are talking about trillions of dollars of money going to support these people in the prison system. More than 80% of the convicts in the US are drug offenders. Each one costs tax payerson average $30,000 a year to monitor. Due the math. Talking close to 100 billion. It is way to profitable to the US to keep them illegal. If you legalize, you have to look at every drug conviction and then close down HOW MANY prisons?? Talking about killing an industry when you think about all the support that goes into each individual.

    April 17, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply
    • nookster

      Exactly! And everybody else feeding off this policy. Courts, judges, prosuctuors, lawyers, probation and parole and how about every person who owes their job to the war on drugs right down to secretarys and janitors in the buildings. Every law enforcement agency in the country from all of the federal agencies down to the 2 man police department in podunk usa. The coast guard and the military are heavily involved. If you decriminalzed it you could cut every policing agency in half tomorrow and close half over every prison. You could save taxpayers billions annually. But hey, theres too many swines eating out of this trough to shut it down.

      April 17, 2012 at 10:13 am | Reply
  11. doughnuts

    A side-effect of marijuana prohibition is the ban on growing industrial hemp. This plant is far too useful, and far too profitable, to be prohibited simply becasue it is related to a plant that some people use as a recreational drug.

    (don't even get me started on how stupid and hypocritical the prohibition of marijuana is, by itself)

    April 17, 2012 at 9:18 am | Reply

    i see a lot of people saying there are pro's and con's for legalization of marijuana... i see the pro's but what are the con"s besides moral high ground?

    April 17, 2012 at 10:09 am | Reply
    • Jerry Dorey

      Not even the moral high ground – in fact, especially not the moral high ground! There is no moral justification for trying to control, by force and punishment, what someone else puts into his/her body. Far from being a moral crusade, the drugs war has been an excuse to crush the vulnerable, the poor, and racial minorities, trampling on fundamental human rights. The leaders of the drugs war should be prosecuted for crimes against humanity.

      April 18, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
  13. Greg

    Both bush and Obama did hard drugs. They didn't get caught, get a record, or get thrown in jail; some are not so lucky. Marijuana is probably safer than alcohol and tobacco; why not legalize it and collect taxes. It costs money to enforce laws. Throw Bush and Obama in jail and clean the records of people with more trivial drug histories.

    April 17, 2012 at 10:23 am | Reply
    • HEHE

      Maybe it is more profitable when this drug is illegal?

      April 17, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply
  14. Ed - Spring, TX

    I can't see what we're stopping by making any of these products illegal. Anybody who wants any of these products can get them with little problem now. The whole war on drugs thing is a sham.

    April 17, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
  15. mochica

    It isn't for us to decide. We are not the owners of Latin America. The Monroe Doctrine has expired. Whatever Latin America decides to do is what they should do, with NO interference from big brother USA.

    April 17, 2012 at 10:37 am | Reply
  16. JimBones

    Legalize all of it. Regulate it to ensure relative safety and quality. Treat it as a health issue, not a criminal one.

    April 17, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Reply
    • HEHE

      Think of the history of the opium wars and the devastation of opium on China.

      April 17, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  17. grenadaboy

    Here's the deal, 10% of any given population is addictive, it's the wiring and the only hope is treatment. No one wakes up some morning saying to themselves, "this is the day I'm going to become a heroin addict". Pushers deal drugs to support their habit. They deal to fellow users AND recruit new customers often out of our schools.Making it a decriminalized controlled substance breaks the chain and opens the door to possible treatment. It ought to be a no brainer. Maybe it IS the hit to law enforcement that keeps us trapped in this no win circus.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  18. gradkiss

    There is a majority of people that have felt that drugs should have been controlled and sometimes even outlawed...but then; that humans should have never ended as illegal before the incident ever happened. The drugs could have always been simply removed from an individuals possession and the individual left alone...but then the uS Judicial branch would have a "hissy fit", if they could not in error execute someone...even an elected Latin american leader.
    That's what the Democrats and Republicans endorse...a continuance of the token coins plus trade in dollars.They do not especially care what results from fully controlling the commerce of everyone...even the most religiously revered.They just want control. That's a bit like what narcissist do.
    Hopefully all of Latin America will employ themselves they use the historical facts and events as the preferred method for living.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  19. kevdigg

    I just cannot understand why people hold on so tightly to ideas that are just stupid. The entire premise on this article is way too simplistic. The War On Drugs is not unwinnable. The fact that there is demand does not mean that drugs should be legal. How can they justify mainstream white people becoming addicted? Illegal drugs would simply vanish if they had a better safer non-addictive drugs available for recreation.

    April 17, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  20. Sylar75

    While alcohol is legal and pot isn't is beyond me. Just ask yourself.... have you ever heard someone talk about their abusive pothead dad? Nope. Maybe their lazy pothead dad.

    April 17, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  21. Not Confused

    Why is there NO US news about the 265,000 AK-47 bullets sized coming into Mexico from Texas? That is what is going on. The US is exporting the ammo to Mexico, and blaming Mexico in this War on Drugs, the US is funding this War, and making Big $$$. Please educate yourselves on what is really going on. Nuf said.

    April 19, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  22. Kirk Muse

    It seems to me that the question as to whether marijuana should be legalized is the wrong question. It should be: Should marijuana remain completely unregulated, untaxed and controlled by criminals?

    Because marijuana is now illegal, it is sold only by criminals ( criminals who often sell other, much more dangerous drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine ). And they often offer free samples of the more dangerous drugs to their marijuana customers. Thus creating the so-called 'gateway effect'.

    In a regulated market, this would not happen. Do the readers know of anyone who has been offered a free bottle of whiskey, rum or vodka when legally buying beer or wine? I don't either. If we regulate, control, and tax the sale and production of marijuana, we close the gateway to hard drugs.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:21 am | Reply
  23. Eric

    I have always believed that marijuana is a gateway drug. Other drugs like meth and crack will follow. I think these drugs should not be legalized. It will cause more conflict.

    May 8, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Reply
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    May 7, 2013 at 6:39 am | Reply

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