Historic Challenge to Drug War Looms at Cartagena Summit [FEATURE]

In just a couple of days, President Obama will fly to Cartagena, Colombia, to attend this weekend's Organization of American States (OAS) Sixth Summit of the Americas. He and the US delegation are going to get an earful of criticism of US drug policies from Latin American leaders, and that makes it an historic occasion. For the first time, alternatives to drug prohibition are going to be on the agenda at a gathering of hemispheric heads of state.

group photo at 2009 Summit of the Americas (whitehouse.gov)
It's been building for some time now. More than a decade ago, Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle became the first Latin American sitting head of state to call for a discussion of drug legalization. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox joined the call, albeit only briefly while still in office through some media quotes, much more frequently after leaving office in 2006. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya issued a similar call in 2008, but didn't move on it before being overthrown in a coup the following year.

Meanwhile, drug prohibition-related violence in Mexico exploded in the years since President Felipe Calderon called out the army after taking office in December 2006. As the savagery of the multi-sided Mexican drug wars intensified and the death toll accelerated, surpassing 50,000 by the end of last year, the call for another path grew ever louder and more insistent.

In 2009, a group of very prominent Latin American political leaders and public intellectuals led by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, calling for a fundamental reexamination of drug policy in the hemisphere and a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and regulation of black markets. That was followed last year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes the Latin American ex-presidents, as well as former Switzerland President Ruth Dreiffus and other prominent citizens such as Richard Branson and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, echoing the Latin American Commission's call for reform.

As the commissions issued their reports, the violence in Mexico not only worsened, it spread south into Central America, where governments were weaker, poverty more endemic, and violent street gangs already well-entrenched. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, in particular, saw homicide rates soar in recent years, well beyond Mexico's, as the Mexican cartels moved into the region, a key transit point on the cocaine trail from South America to the insatiable consumers of the north.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the secretary of defense under his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and a man who knows well just what a sustained war on drugs can and cannot achieve, has been among the latest to pick up the torch of drug reform. Santos has made repeated statements in favor of putting alternatives to prohibition on the table, although he has been careful to say Colombia doesn't want to go it alone, and now he has been joined by another unlikely reformer, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a rightist former general who campaigned on a tough on crime agenda.

It is Perez Molina who has been most active in recent weeks, calling for a Central American summit last month to discuss alternatives to drug prohibition ranging from decriminalization to regulated drug transit corridors to charging the US a "tax" on seized drugs. That summit saw two of his regional colleagues attend, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamian President Ricardo Martinelli, but no consensus was achieved, no declaration was issued, and three other regional leaders declined to show up. But that summit, too, was a first -- the first time Latin American leaders met specifically to discuss regional drug law reform.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by policymakers in Washington. Vice-President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, State Department functionaries and US military brass have all been flying south this year, reluctantly conceding that drug legalization may be a legitimate topic of debate, but that the US is having none of it.

"It's worth discussing," Biden told reporters in Mexico City last month. "But there's no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization. There are more problems with legalization than non-legalization."

But along with discussing an end to prohibition, the Latin Americans have also offered up proposals between the polar opposites of prohibition and legalization. Options discussed have included decriminalization of drug possession and marijuana legalization to different approaches to combating the drug trade to maintaining addicts with a regulated drug supply. In Colombia, Santos has sponsored legislation to decriminalize possession of "personal dose" quantities of drugs, restoring a policy mandated by the country's Constitutional Court but undone by a constitutional amendment under President Uribe.

And it's not just Latin American political leaders. The calls for change at the top are reflected in a civil society movement for drug reform that has been quietly percolating for years. In fact, an international, but mainly Latin American, group of non-governmental organizations this week issued an Open Letter to the Presidents of the Americas calling for decriminalizing drug use and possession, alternatives to incarceration for non-serious drug offenses, a regulated market for marijuana, a public health approach to problematic drug use, alternative development, respect for traditional uses, and a more focused war on organized crime that is less broadly repressive than current models. In Mexico, a social movement led by poet Javier Sicilia, whose son fell victim to cartel violence, has called for an end to the violence and pressed Preident Calderon on drug reform.

After decades of US-imposed drug war, from US military operations in Bolivia in the 1980s to the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia, with its counterinsurgency and aerial herbicide spraying, to the blood-stained Mexican border towns and the drug gang-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro, Latin America is growing increasingly ready to strike out on a different path.

That's what awaits President Obama and the US delegation in Cartagena. The most vibrant discussions may well take place in hallways or behind closed doors, but the US is now faced with yawning cracks in its decades-long drug war consensus.

Joe Biden with Mexican Pres. Calderon last month (whitehouse.gov)
"It's very clear that we may be reaching a point of critical mass where a sufficient number of people are raising the questions of why not dialog on this issue, why not discuss it, why peremptorily dismiss it, why does the president laugh when the subject of drugs is brought up, is he so archly political that it becomes a sort of diabolical act to seriously discuss it, why isn't some new direction being ventured forth?" said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

"It seems the public is approaching the point where it has become credible to say quite frankly that the drug war hasn't worked. The real menace to society is not so much legalization but the failure to confront the hard fact that after decades of effort and hundreds of billions of dollars, a successful prohibition strategy has not been created, nor is there any likelihood of it being created," he said.

"This is the first major gathering of heads of state at which alternatives to prohibitionist drug control policies, including decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illegal drugs, will be on the agenda," said Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Arguments that were articulated just five years ago primarily by intellectuals and activists, and three years ago by former presidents, are now being advanced, with growing sophistication and nuance, by current presidents. There is now, for the first time, a critical mass of support in the Americas that ensures that this burgeoning debate will no longer be suppressed."

"A lot of countries don't want to do the US's dirty work anymore -- enforcing the prohibitionist policies that are unenforceable and hypocritical," said Laura Carlson, director for Latin America rights and security in the Americas program at the Center for International Policy. "Everybody knows that it's impossible to wipe out the illicit drug business without making it legal, and most people know that the efforts aimed at ostensibly doing that are not 100% honest and certainly not effective. Many Latin American countries don't want the degree of US intervention in their national security that the drug war entails either," she noted.

"Having said that, the US government is determined to put down any talk of alternatives and particularly alternatives that begin with regulation rather than prohibition. The recent visits of Napolitano, Biden, [US State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William] Brownfield and the military leaders all carried that message," the Mexico City-based analyst continued. "Small and dependent countries -- El Salvador is the example here, after reversing its position on legalization -- are afraid to stand up to the US on this, and progressive countries don't seem to want to get involved, both because they find the issue a political hot potato and because they are focusing efforts on strengthening alternative organizations to the OAS."

"I think the US strategy of Brownfield and the State Department will be to say that legalization was brought up and rejected by the Latin American leaders," offered Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. "They will use dichotomous rhetoric, they will try to maneuver the discussion into either prohibition or heroin in vending machines, but this is about the whole spectrum of regulatory possibilities. That's what we need to be talking about instead of that false dichotomy."

Still, to even deign to discuss policy alternatives to prohibition is a notable step forward for the US, even if it is only to dismiss them, Nadelmann argued.

"The shift in the public posture of the US government -- from rejecting any discussion of legalization to acknowledging that 'it is a legitimate subject of debate' -- is significant, notwithstanding the clear caveat by the Obama administration that it remains firmly opposed to the notion," he noted. "That said, it is safe to assume that the US government will do all it can to suppress, ignore, distort and otherwise derail the emerging dialog.  US officials are handicapped, however, by the remarkable failure of government agencies over the past thirty years to contemplate, much less evaluate, alternative drug control strategies. They also must contend with the fact that the United States has rapidly emerged -- at the level of civil society, public opinion and state government -- as a global leader in reform of marijuana policies."

The discussion on drug policy at Cartagena isn't taking place in a vacuum, and there is at least one other issue where the US finds itself at odds with its host and most of the region: Cuba. The US has once again insisted that Cuba not be allowed to attend the summit, and President Santos reluctantly acceded, but the whole affair leaves a sour taste in the mouth of Latin Americans. Ecuadorian President Correa is not coming because of the snub, and the issue only plays into hemispheric discontent with Washington's war on drugs.

"The US won the day in persuading Santos not to invite Cuba," said Birns, "but the political cost of that action is high, and the whole drug issue is twinned to it, not because Castro has an enlightened position on drugs, but because of anti-Americanism in the region. This means Cartagena is the city where a lethal blow against the status quo will be achieved."

"The United States is not going to listen," said Birns, "but this era of non-discussion of drug legalization and refusal to countenance the possibility of dialog on the issue may be coming to an end. More and more people who aren't known as drug reform crusaders are coming forth and saying it's not working, that we need another approach, and that's probably decriminalization and legalization. We're very much closer to liberation on this issue than we've ever been before."

"Liberation" may now be within sight, but diplomatic dissent is not yet close to being translated into paradigmatic policy shifts. Whatever discussion does take place in Cartagena this weekend, don't expect any official breakthroughs or even declarations, said Carlson.

"I am not optimistic about there being any formal commitment, or perhaps even mention, of legalization per se," she said. "The implementation group for the Sixth Summit is already working on the final declaration and it contains a section on 'Citizen Security and Transnational Organized Crime.' I think that as far as it will go is to state that transnational organized crime is a growing problem and that the nations of the Americas agree to work together, blah, blah, blah," she predicted.

"The United States will reiterate its 'shared responsibility' and commitment, but will not mention the need to change a failed model," Carlson said. "There will be more rhetorical emphasis on social programs for 'resilient communities' and especially on police and judicial reform, although the former will not be reflected in what are largely military and police budgets. I think the best we can hope would be a mandate for a policy review and a commitment to continue to discuss alternatives. The specific proposals to legalize transit, to create a regional court for organized crime cases and US payment for interdictions will not likely be resolved."

"This is a long process, not an immediate objective," said Tree. "In Central America, it's going to take a year or two of thoughtful -- not sensational -- media coverage. When people see anarchy, they want order. With a more thoughtful dialog, we can begin to get traction."

"It is too soon to predict that this Summit of the Americas represents any sort of tipping point in global or even regional drug control policy," Nadelmann summed up. "But the odds are good that this gathering will one day be viewed as a pivotal moment in the transformation from the failed global drug prohibition regime of the twentieth century to a new 21st century global drug control regime better grounded in science, health, fiscal prudence and human rights."

We'll see what happens this weekend, but at the very least, the taboo on serious discussion of reforming the drug prohibition regime at the highest levels has been shattered. Look for a report on the summit itself next week.

Cartagena
Colombia
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
Looking for the easiest way to join the anti-drug war movement? You've found it!

Too many companies and

Too many companies and ex politicians along with present politicians make money from the Drug War.

As long as there is a drug war, massive Federal reserve money via treasury via tax collection can be funneled to the DEA with 80 offices in 60 countries to enable a manpower base for monitoring other governments and have effects on other counties entire system.

The Wall Street Banks love the Drug Money funneled in washing via equities.

Monsanto,ADM, Dupont and other megacorps love that Hemp will always be not allowed as long as the drug war includes cannabis.

Pharma loves the drug war as 55 companies are now licensed by the Depart of health and Human resources to develop CBD molecules for different medical uses, which includes Wall street-managing stock and bonds for those companies, which includes our elected as the megacorps arrange the dinners at thousands of dollars a plate..which goes to the politicians getting re-elected..around and around we go as..

There is a ton of money either being made or could be influence by an ending of the Drug War. The decision of OBAMA will tell what is decided on. No other country can resist the 'donations' and funding that will be paid by the tax payer, from our govt., sponsored by the ones whom benefit will be the megacorps.

400,000 will be arrested for simple possession in the U.S. next year, Helicopters will be given away to communities to search for pot farms, politicians will get lobby money, wall street will get their infusion and the ones not buying the drugs.....South American countries and Mexico will have loads of criminal violence as leading members of their ruling elite get accommodations for giving Obama what he, and the mega corps want...more dollars devoted from the Federal reserve of the worlds fiat currency and taxes.

There will be no change, because those whom get paid, are not the ones who get harmed...by the Drug War.

$$ Export Industry for Latin America

Imagine Jamaica, where reportedly Rastafarians traditionally attach a flexible extension tube (or hookah hose) to a chillum, now developing a high-volume export (and tourist) industry in narrow, screened long-drawtube chillums (see wikiHow.com: Make Smoke Pipes for Everyday Objects).  Imagine the creative fantasy of a million artisans inscribing positive messages-- calligraphic and pictorial-- on the sides of the 4-5" wood, pottery or metal "handle" in which the head (socket wrench, etc.) is embedded.

(True, Mike Dar (above) could have included the $igarette companies among his list of corporate oligarchies opposing cannabis liberation, precisely for the reason that widespread adoption of a device of this kind, permitting 25-mg single tokes of ANY herb including tobackgo, kills the interest in buying ever more packs of wasteful unhealthy 700-mg paperburners, and soon it will be BAIL OUT PHILIP MORRIS.)

1.  The narrowness of the crater permits control over airfeed-- so that with a one-hitter, by holding flame an inch below the opening you can maintain 385F/197C vaporizing temperature in air entering upon the sifted herb granules inside.  (Learn to substitute the VAPORIZING concept for the present faulty "smoking" (combustion) disaster of suckers inhaling mind-numbing carbon monoxide and thinking the herb got them stoned.)

2.  A screen in the crater permits using even-sifted particle size which vaporizes out cannabinoids well, without particles getting drawn down into the channel.

3.  Long drawtube (a) permits good view of vape-lighting procedure and (b) gives additional cooling time before gases reach your trachea.

Not only Jamaica needs export earnings-- 2 million Haitians need handwork employment which uses their talent, same can be said for sweatshop workers in Tijuana currently doing less beneficial work because the corps (cops) are paying for it.

No figures are floated for how many cannabis users there are today worldwide, but if 1.2 billion $igarette puffsuckers are converted this will create a market for 10 BILLION ONE-HIT UTENSILS-- one at bedside, one in the bathroom, one in the kitchen, one in the wood shop, one in the portfolio,  one in the glove compartment, one in the locker, one to give a friend, several spares in case you lose any, etc..  

Shocking prediction: legalizing cannabis will REDUCE consumption because elimination of wasteful joint-smoking will more than compensate for increase in number of  users.

lsiden's picture

The War on Drugs a failure?

 

Some of the Latin American leaders who are beginning to openly question the War on Drugs have called it a colossal failure.  I beg to disagree.

The War on Drugs in America was never about drugs.  It's about politics and race.  

Nixon inaugurated the War on Drugs because it provided him with a convenient way to criminalize and marginalize his anti-Vietnam War critics.  As he was recorded on tape saying to his Chief of Staff, "You know, they [his anti-war critics] read books, they smoke pot, and they talk."  Then they began arresting people.

The War on Drugs as it is practiced today has become a ruthlessly efficient way to criminalize and marginalize millions of young Black and Hispanic men and women - a population that those in power continue to hold in suspicion, lingering fear, and contempt, as can be seen in the slow and inadequate response to victims of Hurricane Katrina and by conservative politicians recurring use of "crime", and more recently, illegal immigration as their campaign issues of choice.  Those who are released from prison after pleading guilty to drug "crimes" are largely stripped of their civil rights including, most significantly, their right to vote and their ability to receive assistance to continue their educations.  Segregating people, denying people an education and stripping them of their right to vote are three of the hallmarks of the now defunct Jim Crow system.  Drug Prohibition does all this much more effectively and efficiently and has Federal law on its side - something that Jim Crow never had.

The War on Drugs has become a multi-billion dollar industry.  It has created tens of thousands of jobs and has enriched some who are well-placed.  It has also been hugely instrumental in expanding the power of the state to stop, search, and seize the property of almost anyone.  

Finally, the War on Drugs has been provided a cover for projecting American military and political influence into other countries, particularly in Latin America, a region that the US has long sought to dominate.  Many Latin American leaders could not resist the temptation of US military and economic support, especially in their campaigns to dominate their own poor and disenfranchised populations.  Now, as the cost of this relationship becomes more apparent, a few of them have finally begun to stand up and question whether the Yanqui War on Drugs is still to their benefit.

Meaningful dissent in our country has been largely crushed and marginalized; poor people of color remain segregated, unable to continue their educations, and stripped of most civil rights including the right to vote; a multi-billion dollar prison and monitoring industry has been creating with tens of thousands of jobs and has enriched some who are well-placed or ruthless enough to benefit; the US has enjoyed a convenient cover for dominating  the politics and economies of foreign countries south of our border.  In all these regards, the War on Drugs is a colossal success.

The well-meaning but naive Latin American leaders who complain that the War on Drugs is a failure fail to understand that the War on Drugs created by and for the United States was never about drugs.  

It is great to have the

It is great to have the opportunity to read a good quality article with useful information on topics that plenty are interested on. I concur with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your future updates. Thanks a lot and keep on posting more valuable information.
 

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