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Editorial

Legalize drugs? It's a valid discussion for U.S., Mexico and others

Latin American leaders, weary of the drug war, are calling for an important discussion on drug legalization. The U.S. should not turn away.

April 15, 2012
  • President Obama is welcomed by Colombian vice Foreign minister Monica Lanzetta at the Rafael Nunez airport in Cartagena, Colombia. Obama arrived on Friday for a three-day visit to participate in the VI Americas Summit.
President Obama is welcomed by Colombian vice Foreign minister Monica… (Leonardo Munoz / EPA )

The Summit of the Americas is more often a photo opportunity than a forum for bold policy initiatives. When issues of substance are discussed, the meeting of the hemisphere's 34 leaders has generally yielded more clashes than regional pacts. But some saw a chance for a little more action this year when leaders from several Latin American countries came to this weekend's summit in the Colombian seaside city of Cartagena complaining of drug war fatigue.

Over the last six months, that weariness has been spreading throughout Latin America. Colombia'sJuan Manuel Santos, Guatemala'sOtto Perez Molina and Mexico'sFelipe Calderon have all suggested that governments need to look at options beyond the military strategies that have left tens of thousands dead in Latin America while failing to curb consumption in the United States, the largest cocaine market in the world.

The three leaders, all close U.S. allies, say it is time to discuss decriminalizing drugs, with Perez writing that global drug policy is grounded in what he calls the false premise that "global drug markets can be eradicated." He says that ending prohibition would remove the obscene profits from the trade and, as a result, reduce the competition and violence that is part of it.

Crime and violence associated with drug trafficking threaten to destabilize the region further, despite U.S. counter-narcotics aid. The drug wars in Mexico have left some 50,000 dead since 2006. Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world, much of which is blamed on transnational gangs and drug cartels operating in the region. Government corruption tied to drug trafficking has swept across much of Central America.

Withthe U.S. presidential electionjust months away, the Obama administration is not going to engage in discussions about liberalizing drug laws just at the moment. But Latin American leaders, weary of failed enforcement policies, are calling for an important discussion. The United States should not jump on the decriminalization bandwagon without a lot of serious thought and careful analysis. But nor should it shut itself out of that debate. Alternative approaches that hold out hope for a regional solution deserve a fair hearing.

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