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Latin America’s Shift on Drug Policy

I recently read an interesting and smart piece on one of Foreign Policy’s blogs which charted some notable policy shifts among current Latin American heads of state as it relates to drugs. It is true that, more than two years ago, the former leaders of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico all (rightly) claimed that the “war on drugs” had been unsuccessful. It is also true that the current presidents of Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala (among others) have also called for a rethink on the current prohibition regime. In addition, Adam Siegel, of Eurasia Group, rightly points out that leaders like Guatemala’s Ottó Pérez are not deriding current drug policies because they are champions of individual liberty. Rather, Pérez and company want to suffocate the cartels and staunch the violence that continues plague the region, especially Central America.

President Barack Obama has been encouraged to offer up some “policy alternatives” at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. However, merely offering alternatives does not measure sincerity or political will. Yes, criticism of US drug policy will rise in the coming years. On the other hand, the idea that a sitting US President would be deeply moved by a few Central American nations or even Mexico when it comes to this issue is hard to believe. Besides, one hugely important actor still has not been accounted for: the American public. The most effectual pressure that Obama (or any future US president) would feel when it comes to reexamining drug policy will be domestic.

If it were left up to individual states, there is reason to think that more liberal states like California could legalize (or at least decriminalize) marijuana within the next decade. One survey last year noted that the majority of US citizens supported the legalization of marijuana, but the legalization of any other drug is minimal. According to one poll, ten percent of American citizens support the legalization of ecstasy and even fewer support the legalization of cocaine. The legalization of cocaine would have a major impact on drug gangs’ revenues, but that is not happening any time soon. So where does that leave us? According to a recent report by the US Congressional Research Service, “95 percent of all cocaine entering the United States flows through Mexico and its waters, with 60 percent of that cocaine having first transited through Central America.”

If one Central American nation, like Guatemala, legalized drugs, others may follow, as it could be in their best interest to do so if they want to curb violence. However, those countries would have to weigh that decision against the costs of upsetting Washington. Besides, Mexico, with a population of over 110 million and sharing a 900-plus mile border with the US, would still need to go along. And, even if Mexico were to legalize drugs, the problem of curbing US supply (and changing US policy) still would not have been addressed. True, the war on drugs has failed miserably; this is a complex, demand-driven problem. That means that thinking inside the US and, to a lesser extent, Europe is paramount.

President Obama is eloquent, articulate and cerebral. Yet, with few exceptions, he has been a timid leader. Were he to be reelected, he probably will not spearhead bold drug policy reform. Nevertheless, America’s political leaders need to educate the American public and raise awareness so that people fully understand the costs of the current prohibition regime. Disappointingly, if Obama were to push for meaningful drug policy reform now, something officials in the White House have already dismissed, he would undoubtedly alienate moderate voters. That needs to change.

With healthcare, Obama saw how dangerous it is to swiftly pass a major piece of legislation without broader support from the American public. He will not make the same mistake twice. Like his predecessor, Obama has largely ignored Latin America. If he wins a second term, he will have an opportunity to remedy that. It may make more sense to focus on other regional issues like immigration or trade, although strident calls for US drug policy reform will continue. Finally, Latin Americans are speaking out about misguided drug policies, but it is not clear how many people north of the border are listening.