Legalized drugs on agenda

May 2, 2012


When the recent Summit of the Americas in Colombia decided to commission a study on whether to decriminalize drugs, many thought that would be the end of it, and the whole thing would be quickly forgotten. Well, maybe not.

For starters, it was the first time that such a large group of heads of state ventured into that once taboo area. And there are several other non-related factors that may contribute to put decriminalization in the front burner later this year, or in early 2013.

At a closed meeting during the April 14-15 summit of President Barack Obama and 29 other regional leaders, Obama agreed to ask the Organization of American States to look into possible alternatives to the four-decade-old U.S.-backed war on drugs, which many say is failing. No further details were given.

Last week, I called OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza to find out whether this is something we should take seriously.

Skeptics say the leaders did what they usually do when they don’t know how to solve a problem: they kicked it forward. It will take years for the OAS commission to make its recommendations, they say.

But supporters note that the region’s pro-legalization movement is gaining momentum, and that the OAS study may give it further legitimacy.

Only a decade ago, the debate about drug legalization was limited to academic circles, they note. Then, in 2009, three former presidents — Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia — issued a joint statement supporting decriminalization of marijuana. Later, former Mexican President Vicente Fox suggested an even more drastic proposal: legalizing all drugs.

Earlier this year, for the first time, a sitting Latin American president - Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina - called for considering an across-the-board legalization of drugs. Shortly thereafter, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he supports a “serious debate” on the issue at the Cartagena summit, which ended with the mandate to the OAS.

Asked how soon the OAS will complete the study, Insulza told me that they want to finish it by the end of this year, and release it by next March.

It will be a comprehensive study that will look into the business of drug trafficking, the success or failure of various European countries that have experimented with decriminalization and regulation of the drug trade, as well as ways to improve education, prevention and rehabilitation, he said. Several other regional institutions, including the Pan American Health Organization and the Inter-American Development Bank, will participate in the study, he added.

“What will be new is that we will offer several alternatives to what is being done right now,” Insulza said. “The idea is not to tell presidents what should be done, but to give them a menu of options.”

My opinion: Several factors will converge late this year, or in early 2013, to place the drug debate at the top of the U.S.-Latin American diplomatic agenda.

First, Mexico will inaugurate a new president in December, and, no matter what the candidates say now, the winner of the July 1 election will want to create distance from the current war on drugs, which has left more than 50,000 dead over the past five years.

Second, California, Oregon and Washington are scheduled to include pro-marijuana legalization propositions on their ballots in this November’s elections. A victory of one or more of those propositions would embolden legalization forces, and weaken Latin America’s resolve to fight the drug cartels militarily.

Third, the OAS study may include decriminalization of marijuana among its “menu of options,” encouraging more presidents to join the pro-decriminalization camp. The OAS, which has not been doing a good job defending democracy or human rights lately, may take its drug policy mandate seriously, if anything else to become more relevant.

A blanket legalization of hard drugs may not be the best idea, but if the OAS report concludes that decriminalization of marijuana would give countries more resources to help combat harder drugs, it will be a better alternative than the war on drugs that is costing so many lives - and money - nowadays.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.


Richard Heckler 5 years, 7 months ago

"A blanket legalization of hard drugs may not be the best idea, but if the OAS report concludes that decriminalization of marijuana would give countries more resources to help combat harder drugs, it will be a better alternative than the war on drugs that is costing so many lives - and money - nowadays." By Andres Oppenheimer

Decriminalization would certainly reduce congestion of court dockets. It would also remove the largest attraction to dealing reefer = big bucks. Once that is gone what's the point.

Face it there are more people addicted to Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Tobacco,Alcohol,Caffeine and prescription drugs than all other drugs combined. Which is to say that some pleasures are acceptable so why not marijuana?

I am not aware of any absolute hard evidence that marijuana is in fact addictive in spite of mountains of speculation. Good food can become somewhat addictive such as breakfast at Global Cafe or Pizza at Rudy's or salads at Free State Brewery ( http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0846/is_9_27/ai_n25354270/ ) or Tofu at Zen Zero or the La Parrilla menu.

According to radio news on 5/1/12 the USA is 5% of the worlds population with 25% of this population behind bars. No other country comes close. This is enormously expensive considering OUR tax dollars are funding this new industry. Americans are getting duped!

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 7 months ago

And you would know this how? (Although, given your writing style, familiarity with the ganja would explain a lot!)

Cait McKnelly 5 years, 7 months ago

Marijuana is a "gateway drug" about like hand holding is a "gateway" to sex.

cato_the_elder 5 years, 7 months ago

Hand holding is indeed a gateway to sex.

You've apparently never experienced that.

jonas_opines 5 years, 7 months ago

"The "Diversity" crowd do not . Unless, by using the word "sex" you mean anything goes."

Did that pair of sentences make sense to you?

Liberty275 5 years, 7 months ago

Some people experience both at the same time, so let's not make undue assumptions. Such behavior with people holding hands during intimate periods is even detailed in the Kama Sutra.

Besides, it is just mean to condemn people because of their sexuality.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

It's a good time to discuss this and it's complex. Most drug laws were based on racism and politics, not science or health matters. Drugs are dangerous, but so is the "War on Drugs" which is cramming our prisons full and not a good investment. Treatment, counseling and education is a better approach.

jafs 5 years, 7 months ago


Drugs are dangerous. but so are alcohol and nicotine, many prescription medications, driving, eating fast food, etc.

We should either ban all dangerous activities, or legalize all of them, if we want to be consistent.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

+1. I agree. Part of the hypocrisy is the way the laws are administered and enforced, not to mention that the govt is addicted to the tax revenue from the two most deadly poisons that can be easily purchased. On this topic, I fall with the Libertarians. It's none of the government's business.

ljwhirled 5 years, 7 months ago

Say education and rehab?

Just legalize pot already.

For hard drugs, make them available by prescription, document usage and build intake methods that bring documented abusers into rehab programs.

Enforce consequences on abusers like revocation of driver's license, revocation of 2nd amendment rights, revocation of parental rights.

Tax the holy hell out of the drugs and mandate that those funds be used for rehab programs.

Self funding, legalizes the supply chain, documents abusers and provides consequences to get them into rehab programs.

Liberty275 5 years, 7 months ago

Ease up on the tax rhetoric and I'm with you. Tax it at a rate similar to other drugs like beer, smokes and coffee.

Joshua Montgomery 5 years, 7 months ago

All of which are taxed heavily.

Society should tax stuff that is costly to our overall well being, like drugs, cigarettes, guns, pollution and lawyers.

Society should subsidize stuff that benefits the whole like healthy foods, exercise, education, skill training, preventive health care.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

There already is a huge black market for prescription drugs. These drugs, some of the most powerful in existence, are already taxed and heavily regulated. Yet they find themselves in the hands of people who should not have them, children being one. If additional drugs are decriminalized, taxed and regulated, as prescription drugs are, why should anyone believe that they too won't end up in the hands of those who will abuse them? Why should we believe that regulations will be effective? Why should we believe that these regulated and taxed drugs won't end up in the hands of children? Now, I'm not necessarily opposed to decriminalization. I just want it recognized that with decriminalization/legalization, we will be trading one set of problems for another set of problems.

jafs 5 years, 7 months ago

The same can be said of alcohol use - kids get it, even though they're not supposed to.

Should we outlaw alcohol and prescription drugs because of this?

You're mixing up two different questions - one, should something be legal/illegal and two, how do we deal with human nature.

Your argument is analogous to saying that since people break laws, what good are they? We have speed limits, but people still speed. Murder, rape, etc. are illegal, but people still do those things.

The real question is would we be better off, overall, if these substances were legal, and the clear answer from my perspective is yes. That doesn't mean there wouldn't be issues, like the ones you mention, but overall the situation would be better, in a number of ways.

How's that black market for alcohol these days? Cigarettes? When was the last time somebody was killed in a gangland killing over alcohol?

We can treat all of your issues the same way we do now - it's not legal to give alcohol to babies, so it wouldn't be legal to give drugs to them either, and just as we prosecute people for child neglect, endangerment, etc. now we could do it with other substances.

That doesn't eliminate people who will break the law, anymore than laws against murder and their enforcement eliminate murder, but it's the best we can do, unless we ever get to the most profound underlying causes of this sort of behavior and find a way to deal with that.

For example, our society is an extremely addictive one - that will continue to be the case regardless of our policies/laws about drug use. Perhaps if we found out why so many are addicted to various things, we could help reduce that. That might be a good use of some of the extra revenue we get from the sale of those substances.

jhawkinsf 5 years, 7 months ago

You used one analogy that's quite interesting, something we can speculate about. Let's talk about speed limits. Sure, we all go a little over the speed limit. If the limit is say, 70, many will feel safe going up to 80. And if we raise the limit to 75, we may feel the freedom to go to 85. But what would happen if we eliminated speed limits altogether? My guess is that some people who previously felt restrained by the limits would now go 90. Or 120. Some might go as fast as their cars would let them. Sure, some people will still drive at 70-75. But giving someone the freedom to do something foolish will increase the numbers of people doing something foolish. At least in my opinion. I think there are a couple of states that allow for no speed limits on some very rural ares. My guess is that people drive faster there than say on I-70 in Western Kansas, also a very rural area. The bottom line is this, in my opinion. It's not that people are/are not doing these things now. It's that more people will do them if it's decriminalized/legalized. Just like I know people drink alcohol, but if we lower the legal age to 18, more will drink. Lower it to 17 and more will drink. Lower it to 16 and more will drink.

jafs 5 years, 7 months ago

Except that studies have shown that legalizing drugs doesn't significantly increase drug use.

And, again, the issue is not whether or not people use drugs for me.

Let's say you show that alcohol use increased after prohibition (I'm not sure that's actually true, in fact) - I still maintain that the upsides of removing the criminal enterprises from the production, distribution and sale of alcohol outweigh an increase in usage.

jafs 5 years, 7 months ago

And, what makes you think children aren't getting illegal drugs now?

So, that's an issue, and in addition to that issue, we have all of the others associated with the illegality of them.

With legalization, at least we eliminate the second set of problems.

pizzapete 5 years, 7 months ago

What about guns, what about porn, what about access to a car, or a tall apartment building? What if they get into the hands of our children? People need to take responsibility for their kids and teach them right from wrong.

Unfortunately children today have greater access to illegal drugs than to alcohol because alcohol is legal and as such is better regulated. Unregulated drugs are a big problem because one can never be sure of the dosage one is getting or if the person selling it to you is going to rip you off. Imagine having to buy alcohol from someone who made it in their basement and you couldn't be sure if you were getting 3.2 beer or 90% grain alcohol.

ljwhirled 5 years, 7 months ago

The question is which creates less evil in our society.

Legalized drugs with firm regulation, a tax stream to pay for treatment and safety measures in production.

Illegal drugs with all of the costs of trying to destroy the supply chain, random quality controls, no regulation on who can and cannot buy them and no tax stream to pay for the enforcement and rehab.

Either way you are going to have drug addicts. The first way, however, gives us funds to deal with it and practically eliminates violence in the supply chain.

Given their will be addicts either way, we might as well make it legal and use the funds generated to treat and prevent addiction.

Paul R Getto 5 years, 7 months ago

+1 Most rational and well thought-out. Thank you.

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