Pubdate: Tue, 26 May 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Page: A18


During the 1980s and 1990s, as the United States battled the scourge 
of cocaine throughout the hemisphere, Washington did most of the 
talking. Latin American governments were forced to listen and fall in 
line. The American government had the most money to throw at the 
problem, the toughest justice system and the biggest bully pulpit.

In recent years, that top-bottom approach has been upended as 
countries in the region have begun to develop new strategies to fight 
drug trafficking and discourage the use of narcotics. The initiatives 
that are being discussed and applied represent a welcome break with 
the largely failed traditional approach, which has emphasized 
prohibition and punishment. A special United Nations General Assembly 
meeting next April on drug policy has provided an added incentive to 
develop fresh approaches to the problem, including sentencing reforms 
and legalization.

"There is near unanimity that the focus needs to be on health and 
public health," John Walsh, a drug policy expert at the Washington 
Office on Latin America said in an interview. "That is very 
significant, considering most of the policy remains focused on 
enforcement and interdiction."

While a broadly accepted regional approach remains a distant goal in 
a politically diverse hemisphere with many strained relationships, 
the present conversations offer considerable hope. Washington has 
started doing more listening than lecturing, in large part as a 
result of the domestic debate about the legalization of marijuana and 
sentencing reform for drug crimes.

Colombia, which has been among Washington's most willing and pliant 
partners in the fight against drugs, is among those charting their 
own course in notable ways. Defying the United States, the Colombian 
government recently banned aerial spraying of coca crops, citing 
health concerns. Earlier this month, Yesid Reyes, the Colombian 
justice minister, delivered a speech at the United Nations outlining 
proposals that include decriminalizing consumption and finding 
alternatives to incarceration for minor drug offenses.

"We declared a war that has not been won," Mr. Reyes said in the 
speech. "For that reason it's imperative to conceive and agree on, at 
the international level, policies and approaches that allow us to 
respond to this enormous challenge in the most humane, smart and 
effective way."

Uruguay and Bolivia have also been leaning forward. Uruguay legalized 
recreational use of marijuana in 2013. Bolivia kicked out the United 
States Drug Enforcement Administration in 2009 and currently allows 
farmers to grow modest crops of coca, which is widely chewed as a 
stimulant and used for medicinal purposes there. There are outliers, 
though; chiefly Peru, which continues to fight the drug trade with 
strict and punitive policies.

The United States has a strained relationship with several 
governments that have a major stake in the drug trade, including 
Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. In the years ahead, Washington may be 
able to strengthen regional cooperation if it places greater emphasis 
on the tools and expertise it has to offer, rather than punishing 
those that are deemed to be taking insufficient steps to curb the drug trade.

"You have to be able to make the case that having American drug 
enforcement agents involved with your local partners is good for the 
bottom line of those countries," said Julissa Reynoso, a former 
senior State Department official who worked on Latin America policy 
until last year. "Most countries have an interest in having less 
crime, and I think that's a case that can be made, even to countries 
that are not as friendly."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom