Gorilla in the Room: This is Not a Legalization Debate

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In the final installment of the “Gorilla in the Room” series, Colombian columnist Daniel Pacheco* argues that the real challenge for leaders at this week’s Summit of the Americas is to steer the debate away from the polarizing and politically untenable positions of full legalization versus full prohibition of drugs.

During his recent visit to Central America, US Vice-president Joe Biden was asked about drug policy, and he responded as you might expect: “There is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”

The 33 other governments that currently make up the Organization of American States (OAS) would do well to remember these words, not so much for the clear and unequivocal position Biden stated (and the financial implications crossing this line may have), but for providing the perfect illustration of how the US is simply missing the point.

However, critics of the US policy seem to suffer from myopia as well. While the “failures” of the US war on drugs give this side a well-documented case to argue for changes, it usually leads to the more controversial conclusion that all drugs must be legalized.

Herein lies the challenge for the new breed of drug reformer presidents as they approach the sixth regional summit in Cartagena on April 14 – 15: To break from the decades-long duality of debating prohibition versus legalization that has made for good headlines, but little real progress in dealing with this polarizing issue.

To be sure, OAS members need to push this debate into a different territory, one that more closely resembles a discussion about dealing with something like hepatitis or malaria, than one that counts troop levels, police purged and helicopters deployed.

“Drug consumption is a public health issue that, awkwardly, has been transformed into a criminal justice problem,” wrote Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina in a recent op-ed in the Observer.

Perez has become the latest head of state to try and put this debate on the table, with limited success. Others have taken it further, most notably a group of ex-presidents and other dignitaries who took part on the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s damning report on the “War on Drugs.”

Of current presidents, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been the most vocal and active voice in opening the debate. While remaining coy about his own position (Santos recently told Epoca of Brazil that he does not support any particular alternative), the Colombian leader said the summit was important because it is the first time the US is willing to talk about a policy that is “not working adequately.”

These are harsh words from the head of a country that has received more than $8 billion in anti-drug aid and is regularly touted in Washington circles as a case of success.

Then there are the practitioners of these policies. During a book launch last year, Colombia’s National Police Director Oscar Naranjo said that Colombia has “mortgaged its drug policy to US interests.” It was a show of unusual candor from someone who is trusted in US law enforcement circles.

It will be hard for US policymakers to argue with people like Perez, Santos and Naranjo who stand on the front lines of this “war.” Central America is overrun by drug traffickers and Colombia, the US’ closest ally, is still the producer of 95 percent of cocaine consumed in the US (according to the US Department of State), even after the $8 billion injection.

The subtext in this debate is that the formula — the US provides the money and Latin America provides the dead — is not working anymore. Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the most outspoken voices advocating for the end of the war on drugs in the US, seems to think this is the ticket to change. He says that the key in the Americas Summit is to “place the burden of proof on Obama” that the US strategy is working.

But painting a large animal into a corner may not be the healthiest solution. To be sure, the hopes of getting some concrete commitment of change from President Obama, who will be seeking reelection in November, are dim. As James Bosworth noted in his blog, Obama’s own cabinet members’ perceptions of the war on drugs change depending on when you ask. Perhaps if the summit could be delayed a year, there might be a better chance of publicly shifting this debate in a healthy direction.

The irony, of course, is that not one leader has proposed full legalization. Most oscillate between partial legalization (and strict regulation) and decriminalizing some illegal drugs (See: Mapping Pre-Summit Drug Policy Positions). Many have already taken these steps. Paraguay and Colombia, for example, have had laws decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of illegal narcotics for decades. Chile, Brazil and Mexico joined them in recent years.

The Summit will be, at most, an unprecedented opportunity for key regional leaders to frame what may evolve into a productive policy discussion. One that may begin to take place away from the limelight, more focused on the grey areas between legalization and prohibition. A huge deal of progress might be at hand without having to change the international legal framework of drugs. Can there be smarter crime fighting? What if the more effort is placed on reduction of violence and addiction, and less on drugs?

Making this a “region-wide initiative,” especially with the US so hyper-focused on the “legalization” question, will be difficult but not impossible, especially behind closed doors. The US no longer provides so much money, taking away much of its leverage in this discussion. (Even the vaunted Merida Initiative represents in the range of four percent of the total security budget for Mexico.) And if, in the Summit’s final declaration, Latin American manages to squeeze in some wording regarding the need to revise current drug policy, the Cartagena meeting might well end up becoming the historical turning point for drug policy in the Americas.

*See more of Pacheco’s work in El Espectador here.

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