Pubdate: Thu, 14 Feb 2013
Source: Stabroek News (Guyana)
Copyright: 2013 Stabroek News
Note: by Staff Writer


MADRID, (Reuters)  Guatemalan President Otto Perez said yesterday he
is feeling less alone in his drive to re-think the fight against
drug-trafficking than a year ago, when he shocked fellow Central
American leaders with a proposal to decriminalise narcotics.

Guatemala, like its neighbour Mexico, is racked by violence from
drug-trafficking cartels that ship South American cocaine to the
United States. A Central American nation of 15 million people,
Guatemala has one of the world's highest murder rates.

Most Latin American countries have long had zero-tolerance drug rules,
largely encouraged by the United States, which for decades has poured
money into its southern neighbours to eradicate crops of coca, the raw
material for cocaine.

Perez, a former military officer who took office early last year, has
been an outspoken voice saying that spiralling drug violence in Latin
America is fed by billions of dollars from U.S. drug consumers and is
a market force that cannot be stopped without a fresh approach.

Soon after taking office he broached the subject of decriminalising
drugs with his closest neighbours, an idea immediately rejected by his
counterparts in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

But a year later, he said there is more openness and a growing
consensus to discuss change. A number of countries from Brazil to
Mexico have relaxed penalties for small-time drug possession or are
looking to do so. Uruguay's congress is debating a bill that would put
the state in charge of regulating marijuana cultivation.

In October, Mexico's then-President Felipe Calderon and Colombian
President Juan Manuel Santos joined Perez in taking a landmark call to
the United Nations asking for a global debate on an alternative to the
current war on drugs.

While concrete action from the U.N. is still a remote possibility,
Perez still sees signs of change.

"For the first time heads of state are openly talking about this. It
used to be a taboo. Sitting presidents would not talk about it, only
former leaders," Perez told Reuters in a brief interview in Madrid,
where he is on an official visit to drum up interest from investors in
his Central American country.

"We are seeing the first steps toward changing this trend and this
paradigm," said Perez, 62.


Latin America is the top world producer of cocaine and marijuana,
feeding the huge demand in the United States and Europe. Domestic drug
use has risen and drug gang violence has caused carnage for decades
from the Mexican-U.S. border to the slums of Brazil.

Perez has proposed what he calls a "third way" in between all-out
drugs legalisation and complete prohibition. He says the latter
approach has failed as illegal drug use remains high despite decades
of being outlawed around the world.

He has not said exactly how decriminalisation or a regulated market
would work, but has called for a global discussion on looking at new

He has written that it would be a "discrete and more nuanced approach
that may allow for legal access to drugs currently prohibited, but
using institutional and market-based regulatory frameworks."

"At the beginning I felt very alone," Perez told Reuters.

"Fortunately as time passed I feel in better and better company. It
takes time to change global trends but there is a trend shift in
thinking toward regulation of drugs," he said.

Latin American leaders have said that a growing movement in the United
States to decriminalise marijuana use has also dampened their
enthusiasm for drug prohibition in their own countries.

November elections saw voters in Washington state and Colorado become
the first U.S. states to approve measures to tax and regulate
marijuana sales for recreational use.

Supporters of decriminalisation efforts in countries such as Argentina
say that chasing small-time drug users clogs up court systems and uses
up police resources.

They say decriminalisation would free up funds for treatment and
prevention programs and for chasing big-time traffickers.

Some experts urge caution as different countries look at
decriminalisation, saying the judicial system should still play a role
in getting people with drug problems into treatment.
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D