Drug War

You Are Now (Almost) Free to Discuss Ending the War on Drugs

Latin American leaders talk drug legalization. Will Obama join in?


On Friday in Cartagena, Colombia, leaders from North, South, and Central America and the Caribbean will gather for the Summit of the Americas. There's no official agenda, nor is there much word as to what definitely will be discussed beyond freer trade and "civil security." But a flurry of editorials and articles stressing the need to acknowledge the elephant-in-the-room issue of the drug war have suddenly appeared. From The Guardian to The Miami Herald to The Huffington Post there are refrains from Latin American leaders (or articles weighty with references to their new views), all saying that it's time we talk about this issue. Finally, the violence-spawning elephant is under discussion. Will President Barack Obama join the conversation?

Part of the credit for this recent (rhetorical) progress goes to Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, who recently became "the first sitting head of state to propose ending the war on drugs." Molina ran for president in 2011 as a former right-wing military general, but almost immediately upon assuming office in January switched gears on his country's $200 million a year drug war.

Molina is no libertarian, but he is interested in solving the problem. On April 10th, in anticipation of the Americas summit, Molina suggested to the The Washington Post, "It could be a partial decriminalization or a complete decriminalization that would apply to the whole chain of production, transit and consumption."

Other Latin American leaders have also dipped their toes into the waters of legalization. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in November 2011, "A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking… If that means legalising, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it. I'm not against it." He has also stressed that a solution requires more than one or two countries legalizing drugs. Similarly, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the man whose unofficial declaration of war against the cartels lead to a six-year reign of misery that has killed 40,000, has agreed that it's time to talk legalization. In Costa Rica, where marijuana is legal for personal use in small amounts, but other drugs are illegal, drug war violence is spreading. President Laura Chinchilla told Bloomberg in March, "If we keep doing what we have been when the results today are worse than 10 years ago, we'll never get anywhere and could wind up like Mexico or Colombia." Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes is debating legalization as well.

There's not yet a regional consensus, however. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo recently militarized his country's drug war. President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil prefers to fight increased drug trafficking through her country in the same hardline fashion. But former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso is a staunch advocate of legalization. So are former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia. All three men recently wrote a Huffington Post article optimistically headlined "Drugs: The Debate Goes Mainstream." They were part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of big-names including Kofi Annan, who met in June 2011 and concluded "the war on drugs has failed."

What does the U.S. think about this bold new talk? Is there any chance Obama will come back from Colombia with different views?

Sadly, no. Obama's abysmal views on drug legalization havee been well-documented in the pages of Reason magazine, perhaps in most withering detail by Senior Editor Jacob Sullum back in October 2011. The candidate who joked about enjoying recreational drugs and who said his Department of Justice wasn't interested in stepping on state marijuana laws turned into the president whose Justice Department raids local pot dispensaries and brushes off serious drug policy questions with jokes about stoners.

For decades, of course, the drug war has been a non-starter in American politics. Unlike budgets or taxes or education policy, drug laws are simply not on the table to be hashed out. Furthermore, recent federal drug raids in Washington, DCColorado, and on California's Oaksterdam University have shown that the war continues unabated even while domestic support for legalization of marijuana hit the unprecedented height of 50 percent last October. So if there's any reason to be optimistic, it's in a two steps back, one half-step forward kind of way.

Yes, it was notable when Vice President Joe Biden returned from a meeting in March with Mexican President Calderon and said that legalization is "worth discussing." But Biden also quickly added that "there is no possibility the Obama/Biden administration will change its policy on legalization." 

Clearly, the only shift in drug policy the Obama administration is interested in is a rhetorical one, such as when Obama's drug tsar Gil Kerlikowske's declared "the war on drugs" to be an "unproductive analogy." (It certainly still looks like a war in Latin America.)

But here's to miniscule progress: The vice president and other world leaders have at last acknowledged the fact that drug legalization is a legitimate option to discuss. 

Lucy Steigerwald is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

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  1. Jeez, are you all staying late tonight or something?

    1. Stossel party!

      1. Since he has a famous ‘stache, a Stossel Party is pretty much the same thing as a Moustache Party.

  2. I’m sure Obama will treat Latin America’s leaders just as seriously as he treated American voters on the issue of the drug war.

    1. They will get more respect because they are fellow members of the Boss Class.

      Peons Voters don’t rise to that level.

      1. So you think he will actually put the effort into threatening their foreign aid payments rather than just laughing them off?

        1. Exactly, but he will do it much more nicely than Bush.

          1. I can see why lefties love him so much.

        2. They don’t have to threaten the foreign aid, just offer to double it.

          1. I doubt the distinction between carrot and stick really matters all that much when the US government is using it to fuck you.

            1. Made my day

  3. Also, Cartegena is where Romancing the Stone was set. Viva Zemeckis!

  4. Should Obama de-escilate the drug war to any real extent, there will be a lot of cops who have to stop playing Captain Midnight all over relatively harmless pot dealers, a lot of cops who won’t be getting cool military toys with which to play, a lot of cops who won’t be putting in huge amounts of lucrative overtime. The cop unions would, naturally, scream bloody murder. Obama may not be owned body and soul by public employee unions, but they certainly have a lien.

    If Obama does back off on the war on drugs to any degree, I, for one, will credit him with real political courage. I’m not holding my breath, though.

    1. “If Obama does back off on the war on drugs to any degree, I, for one, will credit him with real political courage. I’m not holding my breath, though”

      Given the raids on West Coast MMJ clinics recently, any ‘trend’ seems to be going the other way. And your connection to the cops unions suggests why.
      I’d give him props, too, but…

    2. Not to mention prison guards, attorneys (both prosecutors and defenders), weapon and equipment vendors, and then the alcohol lobby.

      1. I’ve read about the alcohol lobby being for the War on Drugs, but I’ve never seen source for the allegation. It makes sense, from some angles, but is there evidence?

        1. Liquor makers were for a number of years contributors to the Media Partnership, but some years ago that started to look unseemly, so they backed out. They have two ways to look at it. One way is to see downers as a competitor for liquor. The other way is to foresee that the more legal “highs” there are, the less liquor will be singled out for opprobrium and regulation.

          1. My thought is that if I were selling booze, I would be very wary of the current atmosphere of “we mustn’t let people buy what is bad for them”. But my politics are peculiar, so I don’t know if they would feel that logic.

        2. Partnership for a Drug Free America

          Sources of Funding from 1988-91
          Extracted from Federal Tax Returns

          (figures are approximate)

          Pharmaceutical Firms

          J. Seward Johnson, Sr. Charitable Trusts — $1.1 million
          Du Pont — 125,000
          Proctor and Gamble Fund — 120,000
          Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation — 115,000
          Johnson & Johnson — 100,000
          Merck Foundation — 85,000
          Hoffman-LaRoche — 75,000

          Tobacco and Liquor Firms
          Phillip Morris — 125,000
          Anheuser-Busch — 100,000
          RJ Reynolds — 100,000
          American Brands — 100,000

          Prohibition is nothing less than a grotesque dystopian nightmare; if you support it you must be either ignorant, stupid, brainwashed, criminally insane, or totally corrupt.

  5. Sounds like a pretty good plan to me dude. WOw.


  6. No alt-text? The horror, the horror!

    1. “Where is the alcohol and the tobacco?”

  7. Furthermore, recent federal drug raids in Washington, DC, Colorado, and on California’s Oaksterdam University have shown that the war continues unabated even while domestic support for legalization of marijuana hit the unprecedented height of 50 percent last October.

    This is the way such regimes work. The Kool-Aid drinkers who started it get old and die off, the ones who actually grew up and lived under it over time become the majority.

    It happened with the Soviet Union, it happened with China, now its happening with the moronic Drug War. We’ve got about another ten years I’d suspect.

  8. I learned a lot from the Ken Burns PBS series, Prohibition.
    FDR was very timid about ending Prohibition. First thing he did was allow 3.2 beer. Big whoop.
    Then did FDR claim credit for the positive effects of ending Prohibition? I’m unclear on it, but I’m thinking no.
    So from Obama Rama’s point of view, he can’t see the political bang for his political capital buck that he’d get from ending his War on Drugs. Many people’s minds will still be wrapped up in the hysteria over having the freedom to self-medicate. Repugnicans would probably still be able to run attack ads on him for legalizing.

  9. ” Will President Barack Obama join the conversation?”

    Answer: no fn way.

    don’t hold your breath.

  10. Will President Barack Obama join the conversation?

    This close to the election? Bwahhahhahhhhaaa! That wasn’t a serious question, was it? Surely not.

  11. There must be some creative way to offer both sides a face-saving way out.

    1. I’m not interested in letting the Prohibitionist-nanny-state-fascists save face. I want them to walk away with their tails tucked between their legs, never to show their ugly fucking faces in public again. For any reason.

      Not that this is likely to happen in my lifetime.

    2. After the election President Obama will have more flexibility to…

      No, I can’t do that with a straight face.

  12. It should be noted that latin american countries have various (and arbitrary, non-systematic) approaches. For example, even though Brazil has recently taken a hardline approach for trafficking, usage within the state has been fully decriminalized (like Argentina). Grow you own pot, or buy some Ayahuasca drinks from a family-run biz next at the beach, etc.

    For other countries, there are haphazard approaches. Peru and Bolivia has fully legalized Coca, using a cultural/indigenous food rationale, where you can buy it in the markets and drinks like cola & tea made from it. There is no violent crime surrounding the coca trade there. Yet it boggles the mind how the same government tries to persue the drug war against other drugs–though to be fair, partly (or mostly) from US pressure.

    It is interesting how Uruguay has never caved in. AFAIK they are the only country in the world to have never criminalized drugs.

  13. Here in Brazil a recent rally for the legalization of marijuana was prohibited by the courts and violently repressed by the police. So much so that there was a second march for the freedom of doing marches…
    Count Brazil out.

  14. This is really a dangerous idea to legalize the drugs because of this everything will destroyed.

  15. That picture would make a great album cover.

    1. We need guns, more guns. Album cover for Matrix the Musical.

  16. Brazil is the new economy for General Electric. Watch where GE goes and you’ll see all kinds of war monies follow to control the populous so the people can buy stuff. GE figured out that supporting birth control allows families to have more spending capital.
    How many GE products are in your home?

  17. Does anybody remember exactly what it is with Mexico that they legalized, but really it’s still illegal? Like only the tiniest insignificant amounts owned are legal, so it’s still all essentially illegal?

  18. According to the CATO Institute, ending prohibition would save roughly $41 billion of expenditure while generating an estimated $46 billion in tax revenues.

    Maybe many of the early Prohibitionists did not really intend to kill hundreds of thousands worldwide, or put once in every 30 American adults under supervision of the correctional system. But similar to our “Great Experiment” of the 1920s, the prohibition of various other drugs has once again spawned rampant off-the-scale criminality & corruption, a bust economy, mass unemployment, a mind-boggling incarceration rate, a civil war in Mexico, an un-winnable war in Afghanistan and an even higher rate of drug-use (both legal & illegal) than in all other countries that have far more sensible policies.

    Prohibition is nothing less than a grotesque dystopian nightmare; if you support it you must be ignorant, stupid, brainwashed, insane or corrupt.

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