Pubdate: Sat, 14 Apr 2012
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2012 Los Angeles Times
Authors: Christi Parsons and Brian Bennett
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Some Leaders at the Summit of the Americas May Urge 
Decriminalization, a Move That the President Opposes.

CARTAGENA, Colombia - President Obama will highlight trade and 
business opportunities in Latin America at a regional summit in 
Colombia this weekend, but other leaders may upstage him by pushing 
to legalize marijuana and other illicit drugs in a bid to stem 
rampant trafficking.

Obama, who opposes decriminalization, is expected to face a rocky 
reception in this Caribbean resort city, which otherwise forms a 
friendly backdrop for a U.S. president courting Latino voters in an 
election year. But the American demand for illegal drugs has caused 
fierce bloodshed, plus political and economic turmoil, across much of 
the region.

Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, wants the 33 leaders at the 
Summit of the Americas to consider whether the solution should 
include regulating marijuana, and perhaps cocaine, the way alcohol 
and tobacco are. Other member states also are calling for that 
dialogue despite the political discomfort it may cause Obama back home.

"You haven't had this pressure from the region before," said Michael 
Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in 
Washington. "I think the [Obama] administration is willing to 
entertain the discussion, but hoping it doesn't turn into a critique 
of the U.S. and put the U.S. on the defensive."

Obama also is expected to take flak from leaders frustrated by the 
lack of U.S. movement on two other troublesome issues, immigration 
reform and the long-standing embargo of Cuba. Cuban leaders are not 
participating in the summit, but many regional governments oppose the 
U.S. policy of embargo.

In internal debates, White House officials have weighed the risk of 
talking about decriminalization, which is still taboo for many U.S. 
voters, against concern about alienating leaders who bear the brunt 
of the battle against the heavily armed cartels that supply most 
marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines to U.S. markets.

White House officials say Obama will not change his drug policy. They 
hope to keep talk of legalization behind closed doors while he 
focuses publicly on other tactics, including improving security 
forces, reforming governance and enhancing economic opportunities.

The call for change comes from front-line veterans of the drug wars, 
including Colombia. Santos says he has the moral authority to seek 
new solutions because his country's citizens and security forces have 
spilled so much blood fighting drug traffickers.

Also leading the charge is Guatemala's president, Otto Perez Molina. 
After a pre-summit meeting with leaders of Costa Rica and Panama, he 
called for a "realistic and responsible" discussion of 
decriminalization in Cartagena.

"We cannot eradicate global drug markets, but we can certainly 
regulate them as we have done with alcohol and tobacco markets," he 
wrote in the British newspaper the Observer on April 7.

White House officials plan to argue that no evidence indicates 
legalization would slow the flow of narcotics or reduce drug-related 
killings. Vice President Joe Biden offered a preview in Miami Beach last month.

"We should have this debate, and the reason is to dispel some of the 
myths that exist about legalization," Biden told reporters. "There 
are those people who say, 'If you legalize, you are not going to 
expand the number of consumers significantly.' Not true."

U.S. officials also will emphasize administration efforts to reduce 
illicit drug use in the United States, the world's largest consumer 
of cocaine and other illegal drugs.

The Justice Department, for example, has added special courts that 
can sentence drug abusers to treatment programs instead of prison. 
And the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, assuming it 
survives Supreme Court review, requires the medical industry to treat 
substance abuse as a chronic disease.

Marijuana use in America has increased by 15% since 2006, but cocaine 
use has dropped by 40% in that time, according to theU.S. Department 
of Health and Human Services. Experts say the global market for 
cocaine is unchanged because use in Europe more than doubled in the 
last decade.

The idea of regulating and taxing the production and sale of illegal 
drugs isn't new. A panel led by former United Nations 
Secretary-General Kofi Annan and past presidents of Mexico, Brazil 
and Colombia concluded in a report in June that the drug war had 
"failed" and recommended easing penalties for farmers and low-level drug users.

That doesn't make the issue any easier for Obama.

"I don't think anybody thinks the current policy works right now, but 
public opinion hasn't gotten to the point of accepting the idea of 
legalization," said David Damore, a political scientist at the 
University of Nevada-Las Vegas who writes about U.S. and Latino 
politics. "There's nothing to be gained from it politically, and it 
opens you up to an attack."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom