Pubdate: Sat, 14 Apr 2012
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2012 The Baltimore Sun Company
Authors: Christi Parsons and Brian Bennett


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

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 heads of state
at the Summit of the Americas to consider whether a potential solution
includes regulating marijuana, and perhaps cocaine, like alcohol or
tobacco. Other member nations are calling for that dialogue, despite
the political discomfort for Obama.

"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."

Obama also is expected to take flak from leaders over the lack of U.S.
movement on two other issues, immigration reform and the long-standing
Cuba embargo. Cuban leaders are not taking part in the summit, but
many nations oppose the U.S. policy.

The search for alternatives to what many Latin American leaders
consider a failed war on drugs, however, is likely to eclipse the
other issues.

White House officials say Obama will not change U.S. 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 veterans of the drug wars, including

Another advocate of change is Guatemala's president, Otto Perez
Molina. After holding 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 April 7 in the British newspaper The Observer.

White House officials plan to argue that no evidence indicates
legalization would slow the flow of narcotics or reduce drug-related
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