By Doug Palmer
If the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state bends your mind, consider that it could prompt Mexico, Colombia and other Latin American countries to ease off of their enforcement efforts.
Weary of the gang violence fueled by America’s estimated $100 billion illegal drug habit, many countries in the region have been pondering a new approach to the challenge of countering the intercontinental drug trade — an issue that will take center stage Friday at the Organization of American States’ General Assembly meeting in Guatemala.
“I think you can no longer expect countries like Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala — certainly on marijuana — to channel resources to fighting drug production and trafficking if they see Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana,” Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States, said.
“The United States can’t have its cake and it eat it too,” he said. “At some point, it will have to reconcile what it is doing domestically — a slow motion but inevitable process toward de facto legalization — with its international law enforcement and drug control policies.”
As part of the push toward alternatives to the current drug-fighting regime, Organization of American States Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said the group would issue a joint statement Friday urging members to focus more on treatment and rehabilitation for drug offenders rather than incarceration.
The countries, which include the United States and all 34 other nations in the Western Hemisphere, also agree that they should explore moving away from mandatory jail sentences toward alternative punishments for possession or sales of small amounts of drugs, the former Chilean diplomat said.
And while members will stress the need to strengthen public institutions to fight organized crime, especially in countries where there is weak rule of law, they will also recognize that the illicit drug trade affects countries differently in terms of violence and its drain on government resources, “so we will be tolerant to what countries want to do,” he said.
“In war terms, you could say we are successful,” Insulza said with a twist of irony. “We have taken a lot of prisoners in this war. But at the center of the debate is, if it’s a public health problem, why do we send people to jail? Victims should be treated in hospitals.”
In a separate statement ahead of the OAS meeting, he elaborated: “What we wanted to achieve was to remove this war on drugs, that was a never-ending war, that led nowhere, that produced nothing and that affected greatly our countries. We are achieving this.”
The special meeting in Guatemala — a country that stands at the bloody crossroads of the international drug trade — follows a series of OAS reports on the issue commissioned by President Barack Obama and other regional leaders at a 2012 Summit of Americas meeting.
One such report outlines several scenarios for dealing with the problem over the next decade, including “trying and learning from alternative legal and regulatory regimes, starting with cannabis.” But even if prohibition continues, another scenario envisions Central American states abandoning the fight against drug production and transit through their territories in the hope of reducing the brutal toll from gang battles over control of the trade.