Pubdate: Fri, 13 Aug 2010
Source: Times Union (Albany, NY)
Copyright: 2010 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation
Author: Andres Oppenheimer
Note: Andres Oppenheimer writes for The Miami Herald.


Legalization of drugs -- long an issue championed mainly by fringe
groups -- is rapidly moving to the mainstream in Latin America.

The recent surprise statement by former Mexican President Vicente Fox
in support of "legalizing production, sales and distribution" of drugs
made big headlines around the world.

Fox, a former close U.S. ally who belongs to the same center-right
political party as President Felipe Calderon, rocked the boat at home
by indirectly criticizing the very premise of Calderon's all-out
military offensive against Mexico's drug cartels, which has cost
28,000 lives since 2006.

Calderon immediately responded that he opposes legalization of drugs,
although he has opened a dialogue with political parties about the
future of his country's anti-drug policies. The left-of-center Party
of the Democratic Revolution announced that it supports "de facto
legalization" of drugs.

Fox's statement, first published Aug. 7 in his blog, went far beyond a
2009 joint declaration by former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso
of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia.

They questioned the effectiveness of the U.S. war on drugs and
proposed decriminalizing possession of marijuana for personal use.

While the three centrist former presidents' proposal amounted to not
prosecuting people for consuming marijuana, Fox's proposal calls for
legalization of all major drugs.

Fox told me that he is making his proposal because drug-related
violence in Mexico has reached intolerable levels, and because the
experience of other countries such as the Netherlands has shown that
allowing drug sales has not significantly driven up drug

"Prohibitionist policies have hardly worked anywhere," Fox told me.
"Prohibition of alcohol in the United States never worked, and it only
helped trigger violence and crime."

Since possession of small amounts of marijuana has already been
decriminalized in Mexico, what's needed now are bolder steps, such as
legalizing drug production and using the taxes it generates to fund
anti-drug education programs, he said.

"What I'm proposing is that, instead of allowing this business to
continue being run by criminals, by cartels, that it be run by
law-abiding business people who are registered with the Finance
Ministry, pay taxes and create jobs," Fox said.

Fox called for a reversal of Calderon's decision to send the army into
the streets to fight the drug cartels because "the army is not
prepared to do police work, and we are seeing day to day how the
army's image is losing ground in Mexico" as a result of this war.

In a separate interview, White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske told
me that drug legalization is a "non-starter" in the Obama

Kerlikowske disputed the idea that alcohol prohibition drove up crime
in the United States in the 1920s, arguing that there were no reliable
crime statistics at the time.

And he rejected the notion that there has been no major increase in
drug consumption in the Netherlands.

"In the Netherlands, consumption did go up. In fact, the Netherlands
has been in the process of closing down hundreds of the marijuana
cafes that had been in existence because of the problems that are
occurring," he said.

My opinion: I'm not convinced that a blanket legalization of drugs
would work because government regulation of the cocaine and heroin
businesses in countries that already have high corruption rates would
result in greater official corruption.

On the other hand, it's clear that after four years of Calderon's
U.S.-backed war on drugs, the cartels are smuggling more drugs,
killing more people and becoming richer.

Perhaps the time has come to take a step-by-step approach and start a
serious debate about passing laws that would regulate legal production
of marijuana, alongside massive education campaigns to discourage
people from using it.

Then, we could see who is right and consider what to do next. 
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