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Drug policy focus of Latin America talks

Sun., March 4, 2012

Vice President Joe Biden, shown Monday in Washington, is scheduled to arrive in Mexico City today. He’ll also travel to Honduras. (Associated Press)
Vice President Joe Biden, shown Monday in Washington, is scheduled to arrive in Mexico City today. He’ll also travel to Honduras. (Associated Press)

Vice President Joe Biden heads to Latin America today amid unprecedented pressure from political and business leaders to talk about something U.S. officials have no interest in debating: decriminalizing drugs.

Presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Mexico, all grappling with the extremely violent fallout of a failing drug war, have said in recent weeks they’d like to open up the discussion of legalizing drugs. Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Mexico already allow the use of small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption, while political leaders from Brazil and Colombia are discussing alternatives to locking up drug users.

Business leaders are weighing in as well: In February, a group of banking, medical and legal experts sponsored a drug policy conference in Mexico City which concluded that current drug control policies aren’t working and need reform.

“It’s a different moment when you have actual heads of state talking about the need for a thorough debate on this,” said John Walsh, a drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, an independent think tank. “It’s certainly different for sitting presidents to be uttering those words.”

Dan Restrepo, the top Latin America official in the White House, briefing reporters about Biden’s upcoming trip, said the vice president does expect a “robust conversation” about the security problems Latin American countries face as drug traffickers battle to control the lucrative U.S. sales. But he said Latin American leaders shouldn’t expect a shift in policy.

“The Obama administration has been quite clear in our opposition to decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs,” said Restrepo.

Biden is scheduled to arrive in Mexico City today to discuss economic and security issues with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

On Tuesday Biden is slated to travel to Honduras to meet President Porfirio Lobo, along with the presidents of El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala, all countries struggling with the sweeping consequences of expanding drug cartels. Drug gangs have killed tens of thousands and overcrowded prisons are overflowing with accused drug users while powerful cartels fuel corruption – influencing elections, weakening democracies and threatening fragile economies.

For decades Latin American leaders and the U.S. have cooperated on a war on drugs, with more than $1 trillion spent by the U.S. to support enforcement and eradication in Latin America, as well as promises to reduce drug use in the U.S. that generates an estimated $25 billion in profits each year.

But during that time, demand for drugs has increased, fueling violent competition between dealers.

In 2009, former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia blasted the war on drugs and said it was time to consider the decriminalization of marijuana. Last summer they were joined by more than a dozen high level international leaders.


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