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Drug Legalization Debate Continues to Escalate in Latin America

Front Page New York Times Article Describes Uruguay Governmentu2019s Proposal to Legalize and Sell Marijuana u2013 Joining Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Belize and Others in Proposing Drug War Alternatives

On July 30, the front page of the New York Times featured an article titled “South America Sees Drug Path to Legalization,” which discusses the growing debate on alternatives to the drug war. Throughout Latin America, both former and current heads of state are demanding that the full range of policy options be expanded to include alternatives that help to reduce the prohibition-related crime violence and corruption in their own countries – and insisting that decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illicit drug markets be considered.

In February, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina garnered worldwide attention by calling for a debate on alternatives to the war on drugs, including decriminalization and regulation. His proposal quickly received support from other leaders in Latin America, including the presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador. Over the next few months, the failure of the war on drugs and alternatives to current strategies were discussed at significant high-level events, including the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, and at the World Economic Forum for Latin America in Mexico. Most recently, Belize set up a committee to analyze a marijuana decriminalization proposal and Uruguay announced a plan to legalize marijuana, which would make it the first country in the world where the state sells the drug directly to its citizens.

This is the first time that sitting presidents are discussing the problems of prohibition and the merits of less repressive approaches. Even President Obama was obliged to acknowledge the legitimacy of the debate at the Summit of the Americas when he said, “it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good.” In Latin America, where the war on drugs has caused unprecedented levels of violence, death and corruption, this debate is an important step toward improving the region’s economy, security and quality of life.

Statement from Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance:

Uruguay’s President Mujica is providing fresh leadership among those leaders in Latin America who are determined to transform drug control policies in the region. Like presidents Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia) and Otto Perez Molina (Guatemala), he recognizes the need for both bold proposals and sustained commitment to advancing new dialogues and policies.

Not just they but also other Latin American presidents like Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Argentina) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) know that the prohibitionist strategies mandated by the U.S. government for the past forty years have wreaked havoc in the region and offer no promise of success in accomplishing their stated objectives. But they also recognize that those strategies, and the powerful inertia that sustains them, can only be transformed by combining bold leadership at the national level with coordinated international action.

That’s why President Mujica’s leadership is so important at this juncture. By directing his government to consider a variety of regulatory policies designed to reduce crime and illicit markets and separate cannabis from other illicit drug markets, he is doing precisely what needs to be done not just in other Latin American countries but also in the United States, Europe and indeed the rest of the world.

The long term alternative to the failed global drug prohibition regime ultimately lies in embracing three specific policy options: legal regulation of cannabis, more or less like alcohol; full decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs, more or less as the Portuguese have done; and legal access to pharmaceutical versions of other illicit drugs for those addicts and other committed consumers who are determined to obtain the drugs they need or want regardless of their legal status.

Former presidents Cardoso (Brazil), Gaviria (Colombia) and Zedillo (Mexico) provided courageous leadership in breaking the taboo on consideration of alternatives to failed prohibitionist policies. President Santos boldly embraced their analyses and recommendations late last year. President Perez Molina then stepped forward with provocative proposals and efforts to engage other regional leaders on the issue. And now President Mujica is stepping forward with precise proposals that would make Uruguay a global leader in reforming cannabis laws.

There’s no question that the genie has escaped the drug prohibition bottle.