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Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: OAS breaks ground on marijuana

May 24, 2013

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Latin American presidents who support decriminalization of marijuana won a big diplomatic victory in recent days when the 34-country Organization of American States issued a report that considers that option as one of several policies that might help reduce the region’s drug-related violence.

The 400-page OAS report, entitled The Drug Problem in the Americas, had been commissioned by Latin American countries at last year’s Summit of the Americas attended by President Barack Obama in Cartagena.

While it doesn’t make recommendations, it cites decriminalization of marijuana as one of several policy options that countries might adopt, in effect putting the option on the table. It is believed to be the first time that an international organization considers decriminalization of marijuana use as a possible drug policy.

The report calls for “greater flexibility” in anti-drug policies, and notes there are “trends that lead toward the decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale and use of marijuana.”

It adds that “sooner or later, decisions in this area will need to be taken.”

Conversely, decriminalizing or legalizing other drugs, such as cocaine, wouldn’t be a good idea, it says. While marijuana is not more harmful than alcohol or tobacco, it says other drugs are.

In an interview, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza told me that the report merely presents scenarios, and “tries not to lean toward any particular option.” But he conceded there is general agreement among experts who participated in the study on the need to treat illicit drugs as a health problem, rather than as a law-enforcement problem, a key point of decriminalization proponents.

“If a person is ill, you don’t throw that person in jail,” Insulza told me. “That person needs a special treatment, a treatment for somebody who has a serious addiction that must be overcome.”

The OAS report comes after several Latin American presidents, including those of Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Uruguay, have called for changes in the U.S.-backed “war on drugs” that has left tens of thousands of dead in recent years.

These calls have intensified since Colorado and the state of Washington approved recreational use of marijuana last year. It is becoming increasingly hypocritical for the United States to ask other countries to fight marijuana growers, when the drug is legally consumed in several U.S. states, Latin American officials say.

Former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ricardo Lagos of Chile, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico — leading members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which supports legal regulation of all drugs — welcomed the OAS report.

Gaviria told me in a separate interview that while the OAS report doesn’t openly support decriminalization or legalization of drugs, “it broke the taboo that you couldn’t talk about these issues. Now, it has become a legitimate debate.”

The OAS report — which, incidentally, is so convoluted and badly written that it’s hard to get a general message out of it — is to be discussed at the OAS General Assembly in June. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has called for discussing legalization of all drugs at the meeting, which will be held in Guatemala.

The report might set in motion a diplomatic process that could lead to amending United Nations conventions that declare several drugs illegal. The U.N. General Assembly is scheduled to hold a Special Session on Drugs in 2016.

My opinion: I’m not sure that legalizing drugs would be a great idea in Latin America. It would put many already corrupt governments in charge of regulating and controlling billions of dollars of the newly legalized drug business.

That might work in Holland or in other European countries with strong institutions. But in Guatemala, Honduras, and other countries where the police and justice systems are already being corrupted by the drug trade, it could weaken institutions further.

But decriminalizing marijuana consumption makes sense. Instead of putting pot smokers in jail, tying up courts and sending young people to jails where they are recruited by criminals, we should use those funds to launch massive campaigns to dissuade young people from consuming all drugs.

In that sense, the OAS report is a step forward. There is little doubt that the U.S. war on drugs is not working — so much so, that the Obama administration is no longer using that term — and that alternatives must be found.

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

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