Pubdate: Sat, 14 Apr 2012
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2012 Miami Herald Media Co.
Author: Jim Wyss


BOGOTA -- As the hemisphere's leaders gather in Colombia this week 
for the VI Summit of the Americas, their on-camera discussions will 
be dominated by perennial convention topics: poverty, cooperation, 
the need for roads.

But behind closed doors, they are expected to tackle a more 
contentious issue: the narcotics trade.

The 40-year-old war on drugs has cost billions in treasure and 
countless lives, but has produced mixed results. Drug abuse rates in 
the United States have been virtually unchanged over the last decade, 
as dips in cocaine use have been offset by rising consumption of 
marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines. The United States has the 
highest overdose rates in the world - almost four times higher than 
Europe, according to the United Nation's 2011 World Drug Report.

And while anti-drug efforts have managed to reduce coca cultivation 
in Latin America by about one-third over the last decade, global 
cannabis production remains unchanged.

The war on drugs has also sparked a real war for control of drug 
routes, turning Central America into the most dangerous region on the planet.

"What has been a complete failure is the idea that reducing the 
supply - that is, attacking the source countries in Latin America and 
putting so much law enforcement energy in the interdiction operation 
- - would lead to a shortage in the consumption countries," said Martin 
Jelsma, the coordinator of the Drugs and Democracy Program at the 
Transnational Institute in the Netherlands. "There is no way that 
someone can continue to argue that that is in any way effective."

In addition to the violence, Latin America's drug war has led to 
notoriously overcrowded jails, clogged court systems and corruption. 
And yet the region has resisted looking for alternatives, as the 
United States has publically threatened to punish ideological dissenters.

President Barack Obama didn't address drugs or other issues after 
arriving in Cartagena, one of 33 leaders expected before Saturday's 
start of the two-day meeting. Obama's two nights in Colombia are seen 
as a vote of confidence for this nation, which has made huge security 
strides over the last decade. It will be the first time that a U.S. 
president has spent two nights in the country.

Most Latin Americans believe U.S. narcotics policies "makes their 
drug and crime problems worse," the Inter-American Dialogue, a 
Washington-based research center, wrote in a recent report. 
"Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while visiting Mexico, 
acknowledged that U.S. anti-drug programs have not worked. Yet, 
despite growing calls and pressure from the region, the United States 
has shown little interest in exploring alternative approaches."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told The Miami Herald that 
legalizing drugs is tantamount to legalizing murder to bring down the 
homicide rate.

"I do not support that," he said. "I think the reality is that the 
United States certainly has a responsibility to help those countries 
where drugs are grown, where those cartels are located as we are 
doing in Mexico. But the United States also has a responsibility in 
reducing demand."

Even so, the administration has set aside money for drug 
rehabilitation programs and specialized drug courts aimed at reducing 
demand. "The United States has that responsibility as the chief 
consumer of drugs in the hemisphere," he said.

In the past, the calls for change have been easy to ignore. They came 
from Latin American advocacy groups, intellectuals and former 
presidents. The only sitting leaders to seriously question 
Washington's approach were perennial antagonists like Bolivia's Evo 
Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Now, some of the United States' staunchest allies are sounding the alarm.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who cut his teeth as minister 
of defense during the height of the drug war, says it's time to have 
a regional discussion. Mexico's Felipe Calderon, who has seen his 
country throttled by violence, says the United States needs to 
consider "market alternatives" - a codeword for legalization - to 
control the drug trade.

The debate went into overdrive last month when Guatemalan President 
Otto Perez Molina, a conservative former general, held a summit of 
Central American leaders to analyze a series of proposals, including 
creating sanctioned routes that would allow the free flow of cocaine 
to the north without destabilizing nations caught in the middle; some 
form of decriminalization; and establishing a Central American court 
system to exclusively handle drug crimes.

These aren't topics the United States is eager to address.

"This is an awkward [issue] for President Obama because it's an 
election year and he is not going to want to make it appear as if he 
would radically change U.S. efforts to counter narcotics 
trafficking," said Robert Pastor, the former national security 
advisor for Latin America and Caribbean under the Carter 
administration, and now a professor at American University. "This is 
not a good year to raise these issues."

When planning for the summit began in earnest 10 months ago, drug 
policy wasn't on the agenda. But amid pressure from Perez, Santos and 
others, the topic was recently shoehorned into the schedule   albeit 
relegated to a closed door meeting away from the media glare.

"The big question is how much of the private dialogue will spill over 
into the public setting," said Ethan Nadelmann, the executive 
director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

In those closed-door sessions, no one is likely to advocate outright 
legalization, he said. Most of the talk has centered on keeping 
small-time consumers from clogging jails and favoring treatment over 
prison terms.

But even small steps are vial, Santos told El Tiempo newspaper.

"The only thing we're proposing is that we address the issue, because 
up until now many countries, including the United States, have 
refused to do so," he said. "It's been 40 years since the world got 
into this drug war, and I think we should analyze whether or not 
we're doing the right thing."

Some countries are already going it alone. Argentina's legislature is 
considering a bill that would decriminalize drugs and cultivation for 
personal use. Uruguay has never criminalized possession of small 
amounts of narcotics and is drafting legislation to make those 
protections more explicit.

It's in these modest unilateral efforts where governments can proceed 
with the "least international fallout," Nadelmann said.

"It's very unlikely that heroine, cocaine or methamphetamines will be 
legally regulated like alcohol or tobacco anytime soon," he said. 
"It's the prohibition of these drugs that is generating the horrific 
levels of crime and violence and black markets, but that option is 
not on the table."

The United States isn't the only country with a consumption problem. 
Over the last decade, Brazil has gone from being primarily a 
trans-shipment point to being the world's No. 2 cocaine consumer, 
said Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a Latin America analyst for the 
Eurasia Group.

Authorities have seen a spike in crack addicts, and the U.N. said 
cocaine seizures in the country tripled to 28 metric tons between 
2004 and 2009. While the country has favored heavy police enforcement 
to deal with the problem, some experts said the ruling party is 
working on a decriminalization bill. But it's unclear if such a 
measure would have popular support, de Castro said.

How Brazil, the hemisphere's second-largest economy, deals with the 
issue could sway the rest of the hemisphere, Nadelmann said.

"The big question is Brazil," he said. President Dilma "Rousseff has 
been fairly quiet and everyone is eager to get her opinion," he said.

What seems clear is that as Latin America continues to emerge from 
the shadow of the United States, it will increasingly be willing to 
forge its own policies.

"Drugs are not going to disappear from the planet," Jelsma said. "So 
we have to become more clever on how to manage the problem and how to 
deal with it in a way that does as little harm as possible."

Miami Herald staff writers Mimi Whitefield and Jacqueline Charles 
contributed to this report
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