OAS drug study eyes marijuana legalization

AP News
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Posted: May 17, 2013 4:30 PM
OAS drug study eyes marijuana legalization

LIMA, Peru (AP) — An Organization of American States study commissioned in response to calls by some Latin American leaders for rethinking the war on drugs advocates serious discussion of legalizing marijuana.

"Sooner or later decisions in this area will need to be taken," the study released Friday says, although it makes no proposals or specific recommendations on any issue.

The $2.2 million study also notes that "no significant support" was found among any of its 35 member nations for the "decriminalization or legalization of the trafficking of other illicit drugs," including cocaine, which most directly affects the region.

The report was hailed as historic by drug policy reform advocates who call the more than $20 billion that Washington has spent on counterdrug efforts in Latin America over the past decade a damaging waste of taxpayer money.

"This is the first time any multilateral organization anywhere has done something like this," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The study arose from last year's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, and was presented by outgoing OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza on Friday in Bogota to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has said he smoked marijuana as a college student at the University of Kansas.

The study examines four different scenarios for confronting the illicit drug trade, which has fueled violent crime and corruption, especially in drug production and transit countries, including destabilizing governments.

The most controversial scenario would involve countries unilaterally abandoning the fight against drug production and trafficking in their territory in order to reduce violence.

President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, a hard-hit cocaine transit country along with neighboring Honduras, made headlines before the Cartagena summit when he said he was tempted to put his country on such a path.

The report's authors conclude, however, "that there is no absolute link between the drug problem and the insecurity experienced by many citizens in the Americas."

The 400-page study emphasizes drug abuse as primarily a public health issue and suggests drug abusers should not be criminally prosecuted but rather treated as ill.

"Decriminalization of drug use needs to be considered as a core element in any public health strategy," it says.

That echoes the approach of the U.S. government. But it diverges from Washington's longstanding opposition to legalizing marijuana despite the fact that voters in two states — Colorado and Washington — have done that.

Nadelmann said the U.S. government has in the past suppressed any multilateral attempt to promote discussion of alternatives to the current drug war.

"The notion that the OAS would actually convene 50 people, including a number of my allies and people associated with reform, and then have this open-ended discussion and then produce a report that was not subject to intensive political review and censorship is actually extraordinary," he said from New York.

Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the White House's drug czar, said in response to the report that "any suggestion that nations legalize drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine runs counter to an evidenced-based, public health approach to drug policy and are not viable alternatives."

The report was released two weeks before Guatemala hosts the OAS General Assembly, where the subject of drugs tops the agenda.

Nadelmann said the report reflects to a large degree of interest in Latin America with voter-driven marijuana legalization in the United States.

Uruguay's president, Jose Mujica, is pushing marijuana legalization and wants to put the government in charge of sales.

Other findings of the study:

—Drug abuse is the 15th direct cause of death in the OAS' northern countries , 40th in Andean countries and 52nd in Central America. That supports arguments that the United States and Canada bear more responsibility for illicit drug demand.

— Retail sales of illicit drugs account for 65 percent of drug profits, while farmers or producers get 1 percent.

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Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, and Luis Alonso in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.