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.