The Summit of the Americas, normally a subdued tri-annual gathering of regional leaders, could be more interesting than usual this year, as right-wing governments are set to clash with their US allies over the war on drugs.
An increasingly large chorus of nations – ravaged by trafficking and violence – say it’s now time to re-think international drug policy. As the corrupting power of cartels grows across Mexico and Central America, and as the body count rises, legalisation needs to be seriously discussed as an alternative to militarisation, regional leaders say.
It isn’t a message US President Barack Obama wants to hear when he arrives in Cartagena, Colombia, to meet 33 heads of state on April 14.
“When the word legalisation is uttered, it raises a red flag for the [US] administration,” Peter Reuter, a drug policy expert at the University of Maryland, told Al Jazeera.
Legalisation, or decriminalisation, is often associated with liberal activists in North America - the pot smoking, hippy, free-love kind of crowd. Current calls, however, are coming from some of the region’s hardliners.
Conservatives want change
Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina, a former general during the country’s “dirty war”, came to power promising an “iron fist” against delinquency. He recently called the war on drugs a failure and argued that “consumption and production should be legalised” within certain limits.
Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia, and arguably Washington’s closest regional ally, has called for “a new approach” that would “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,” said Santos, a former defence minister responsible for battling leftist rebels and drug traffickers in a war with massive human rights abuses.
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Cynthia McClintock, director of George Washington University’s Latin American Studies programme, said recent statements are “the beginning of a paradigm shift”.
“I think it’s really significant that countries aligned with the US are taking these positions,” she told Al Jazeera. “From Guatemala in particular, it was totally unexpected.”
Supporters of a new approach aren’t just conservatives. Military officers, many coming directly from the field “who have personally experienced the futility of fighting a war against a global commodities market”, are leading calls for reform, said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a US group pushing for alternatives to the war on drugs.
“Social conservatism of militaries in the region had barred a broader conversation on reform,” Nadelmann told Al Jazeera. “But the opportunities for men [from security forces or militaries] to be corrupted [by drug money] and the futility of employing the military in this area” has led to a change of heart from hardened leaders including Molina and Santos, he said.
Leftists seem to support status quo
The presidents of Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica have also voiced support for an overhaul of the drug war, or even some form of legalisation. Others including Cuba, Panama and Nicaragua are against legalisation or a policy overhaul.
“It is leftist governments, [particularly in] Cuba and Nicaragua, who are in many respects the US’ closest drug war allies,” Nadelmann said. “[Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez tries to take every opportunity to poke the US, but on this issue he has been quiet. You wonder if [due to his cancer treatment] the guy is going to need medical marijuana soon,” Nadelmann joked.
On a visit to Central America and Mexico last month, US Vice-President Joe Biden said: “There’s no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalisation.”
He did, however, say that it was a topic “worth discussing”.
Some analysts see that caveat as a softening of the US line. “That comment was widely reported throughout Latin America,” Nadelmann said. “He may not have intended to open the debate as he did, but this [legalisation] is now a legitimate topic for discussion.”
‘This is a crisis’
Drug trafficking and violence are nothing new in Latin America. But since the end of 2006, when Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon declared a frontal assault on cartels, violence has escalated to new heights.
Compounding public discontent, corruption within security forces fuelled by narco-dollars is undermining confidence in basic state institutions. In Mexico, for example, trust in local police forces has dropped from 50 per cent in 2007, at the beginning of the war, to 35 per cent in 2011, according to a Gallup poll.
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“I don’t use the word crisis much, but this is a crisis,” Reuter said. About 50,000 people have died in Mexico alone since 2006 and the situation in Guatemala and Honduras is far worse. Some regions have casualty rates comparable to war zones such as Afghanistan or Iraq.
This situation, where beheaded bodies are dumped in the streets, massacres are common and cartels openly flaunt the authority of state officials, could be driving the new push for legalisation or decriminalisation.
In 2010 alone, the US federal government spent more then $15bn on the drug war, or about $500 every second, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
It was now-disgraced President Richard Nixon who coined the term “war on drugs” in 1971. Since then, the drug war has cost more than one trillion dollars, the Associated Press reported in 2010. Hundreds of thousands of lives have also been lost. Observers are split on whether the goal of the programme was actually battling drug cultivation, or if the real aim was the projection of US military power in the region.
Regardless, attitudes towards drugs are changing in the US itself. In 1969, when Gallup first asked about legalising marijuana, only 12 per cent favoured such a move, while 84 per cent were opposed. Support for legalisation remained around 25 per cent from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. In 2011, for the first time, support for legalisation among US respondents passed the crucial threshold of 50 per cent, according to Gallup’s annual crime survey.
“There have been some pretty dramatic shifts in the American electorate, at least towards the decriminalisation of marijuana,” McClintock said, adding that Washington DC, where she lives, has decriminalised the drug, at least when used for its medicinal benefits.
She isn’t sure why Obama refuses to move the national discussion on drugs towards legalisation or decriminalisation, especially considering the disproportionate numbers of African American men who are currently in US jails for minor drug offences as “one would think this would be an issue close to Obama’s heart”.
Latin America debates legalising marijuana
Three out of four in the US believe that the United States’ forty year “war against drugs” has failed, according to a 2008 poll from Zogby International and the Inter-American dialogue.
A long road
These latest calls from Guatemala and Colombia are not the first time influential leaders have challenged conventional wisdom on the drug war. They are, however, the strongest calls yet from sitting politicians.
In 2009, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, composed of the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, called for marijuana decriminalisation.
“Everyone might agree that the war on drugs has failed, but that doesn’t mean there is support for something else,” Reuter said.
Currently, there is not a concrete proposal on the table for decriminalising or legalising drugs to end the war. Some observers expect a new commission to investigate the problem will be inaugurated after the Summit of the Americas.
Some analysts believe history is starting to move full circle, as 2012 marks a century since the first international anti-drug convention was signed in The Hague.
Change – if it ever happens – won’t come quickly, analysts say, but there is optimism about long-term progress. If nothing else, the taboo of discussing legalisation has been broken, they say.
“This will be the first meeting of heads of state where this [legalisation and decriminalisation] will be on the agenda,” Nadelmann said. “It’s a game changer, the pendulum is swinging in a new direction for the first time in 100 years.”