Latin Summit To Discuss Approach To Drug War

President Obama travels to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas Friday. Leaders will discuss development and economic issues. There will also be a push to address the problem of narcotics. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, talks to Renee Montagne about how the U.S. war on drugs is going.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Obama heads to Colombia today for the Summit of the Americas. He'll be joined by more than 30 leaders from North, South and Central America to discuss the economic issues as well as regional security. There will also be a push to address the problem of narcotics and what some heads of state are now calling the failed war on drugs.

To find out more about that argument, we spoke with Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He's one of the leading critics of the current U.S. drug policies, and he has some hopes for this summit.

DR. ETHAN NADELMANN: This is truly an historic moment. I mean, for decades, and in some respects a century, there has been no discussion of finding ways to deal with drugs that do not rely so heavily on prohibitionist policies, on military and security forces.

So you now have very respected leaders and allies of the United States and Latin America who are saying we need to devote the same level of focus and resources and attention to examining alternatives to prohibitionist policies as we've devoted over the last 40 years to the failed drug war policies.

MONTAGNE: Right, these are countries that are pretty friendly to the United States - Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico - that have been the most vocal.

NADELMANN: Well, it's quite remarkable, actually, because the president of Colombia was the former defense minister. And he's saying, from somebody who has waged a, sort of, internal war against crime and insurgency, that we can no longer sustain this war on drugs. In Guatemala, you have a former general - somebody who was the former head of intelligence - and he's saying enough.

In Mexico, President Calderon who - I mean if anybody has the moral authority to call for alternatives, it's him. He's waged a war against criminal organizations for virtually all of his six-year term. It hasn't worked out so well. And he's now coming to the United States and saying, if you can't reduce your demand, guys, you better start looking at market alternatives.

MONTAGNE: The flip side of that is what happens if they stop? Isn't it more damaging for some of these countries to not fight back?

NADELMANN: Well, you know, it's not a matter of no longer going after the gangsters. One cannot defeat what is essentially a global commodities market through law enforcement measures. Every law enforcement success in the region, for the last 40 or 50 years, has resulted, simply, in displacing drug production in the drug trade to another area. We need to find a different way so that this is no longer a business where the gangsters run the entire thing.

MONTAGNE: Give us a couple of examples of the alternatives that are being talked about. It isn't necessarily full legalization, non-regulated-let-the-drug-trade-go-free, is it?

NADELMANN: Well, it's really a spectrum of options. We need to look, for example, at the decriminalization of possession for small amounts of drugs by users. It's a policy that both the Colombian and Guatemalan presidents have spoken well off, as well as in Argentina, a proposal was just introduced to do that. Costa Rica is sympathetic. So that's one of the options.

The second option that will be on the table, I believe, is the legalization, the legal regulation and taxation of marijuana. And this, paradoxically, is an issue where the United States, not at the level of the federal government, but certainly at the level of civil society, public opinion, state government is emerging remarkably as a global leader.

You have, you know, 16 states that have legalized medical marijuana. You have a million Americans who are now legal medical marijuana patients. So that option is bubbling up in a way, globally, that we've never seen before.

MONTAGNE: How likely are these proposals by Latin America leaders – how likely are they to persuade President Obama? What's he walking into there?

NADELMANN: Well, you know, it really is a new moment, right now. Vice-President Biden went down to the region, to Mexico and Honduras last month. And when he was asked about this, he said, Look, the United States is firmly opposed to legalizing anything; but we now acknowledge that this is a legitimate subject for discussion.

That mere acknowledgement played throughout the Latin American media. And Latin American governments who wanted to open up this dialogue, basically pointed to Biden's statement as evidence that the U.S. is now open to a discussion. For Obama, the challenge will be - he doesn't want a headline coming out of here, saying that, you know, President Obama Endorses Call to Study Legalization. That's his fear, especially in an election year season.

But he's going to need to acknowledge that this is a legitimate subject for debate and that the United States needs to play a role.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

NADELMANN: Thank you very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Ethan Nadelmann is head of Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates alternatives to the war on drugs.

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