Pubdate: Fri, 07 Jun 2013
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2013 The New York Times Company
Author: Randal C. Archibold


ANTIGUA, Guatemala - Whatever noisy hints Latin America has been
making about a defiant march toward legalizing marijuana, the summit
meeting of Western Hemisphere foreign ministers that ended Thursday
revealed how rocky that path would be - and how many nations remained
reluctant to join it.

The meeting, the annual General Assembly session of the Organization
of American States, followed a report by the organization that called
for "flexible approaches" in drug policy and included a
headline-grabbing suggestion that the legalization of marijuana be
seriously discussed.

Even before the report, Uruguay moved toward a state-regulated
marijuana market. Guatemala has talked approvingly of the idea. And
the president of Colombia has said marijuana should be legalized
worldwide, though his country would not take the first step.

So how quickly will pot shops open throughout the region? Not

The frustration with current drug policy - with its high costs, death
tolls in the tens of thousands across the Americas and persistent
heavy flow of narcotics - is very real. Consensus on what to do about
it, however, is much harder to come by. Diplomats here even tussled
behind the scenes on how to follow up on the report and how further
talks should be conducted.

The focus on the crack in the door for legalization has obscured the
fact that several countries in the thick of the problem, and not just
the United States, are cool to the idea or reject it outright as any
solution to the violence or as a way to control consumption.

Brazil has opposed legalization of any drug, and its antidrug chief
was fired two years ago after comments perceived as a softened stance
on drug users.

The head of Peru's antidrug agency told reporters after the O.A.S.
report came out that it rejected legalization and was already
overwhelmed with trying to treat the growing number of drug consumers

Mexico, too, has rejected wholesale legalization, even though former
President Vicente Fox expressed his support this week for marijuana
legalization and said he would even become a marijuana farmer.

One of the more blunt antilegalization voices here came from
Nicaragua. Denis Moncada, ambassador to the organization, told the
gathering, "Replacing and weakening the public policies and strategies
now in use to combat the hemispheric drug problem would end up
creating dangerous voids and jeopardize the security and well-being of
our citizens."

Public opinion polls in the region, which trends conservative on
social issues, generally show disapproval for the idea and, unlike the
United States, few countries have an older generation that is
comfortable with the drug and might advocate for it.

"In the United States, public opinion leads politicians and not the
other way around," said John Walsh, a drug policy analyst at the
Washington Office on Latin America who follows the region closely. "In
Latin America, it is going to be a ways before that happens."

Still, he said, the drug report went further than expected by breaking
a taboo of not even discussing legalization, though it rejected talk
on liberalizing laws against more powerful drugs like cocaine. Over
all, he said, the report could give countries leverage to challenge
hardened American positions.

The United States, despite the states that have legalized marijuana
for medical or recreational purposes, has not budged on its position.
Yet some Latin American leaders have said the move by those states
undercuts the federal government's argument for seizing and
criminalizing the drug.

Speaking here Wednesday on his first Latin America trip as chief
diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry said he was open to dialogue
but defended American policy. He called it comprehensive, balanced
between reducing demand, which he said had decreased by 40 percent in
recent years, and increasing treatment, yet not letting up on seizing
drug loads and making arrests.

He suggested that those pushing legalization were seeking a panacea.
"These challenges simply defy any simple, one-shot, Band-Aid"
approach, Mr. Kerry told the assembly. "Drug abuse destroys lives,
tears at communities of all of our countries."

The United States was among the countries that agreed to keep up the
dialogue but behind the scenes scoffed at another foreign-minister-level
discussion on drugs, which is now planned for April of next year to
provide further guidance on new strategies. The given reasons were the
cost of another such meeting while the O.A.S. budget was under
scrutiny and worries that politics intruded on such high-level

But diplomats pushing for the meeting wondered if the United States
was trying to squelch debate. "They talk about dialogue, so let's keep
having it," said one involved in the discussions.

If widespread legalization is not on the horizon, what

Several countries, including big, drug-producing nations like Mexico
and Peru, have already decriminalized possession or use of small
amounts of illicit drugs. The United States has argued that it has
effectively gone this route through the use of drug courts, which
steer nonviolent drug offenders to treatment programs instead of prisons.

In the end, analysts said countries would probably do what they had
always done, go their own route in accordance with what their public,
and domestic politics, demand.

"No one thinks a new policy is going to be simple," said Daniel
Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division of Human Rights
Watch, which this week urged the decriminalization of drugs for
private use. "But that serious debate looking for alternatives has to
really happen."

Mike McDonald contributed reporting.
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