Drugs: The Rebellion in Cartagena

Carolyn Kaster/AP Images
President Obama with the Colombian singer Shakira and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Cartagena, where he was attending the Summit of the Americas, at which leaders openly discussed the legalization of drugs for the first time, April 15,2012

A couple of decades ago, perhaps, a discussion of the war on drugs declared by Richard Nixon back in 1973 could reasonably have centered on whether eradication of narcotic-producing crops and the violent extermination of drug-trafficking groups was the way to rescue the young and vulnerable from the threat of addiction. It was the existence of addicts, after all, and the desire to avoid creating more of them, that justified the entire notion of drug prohibition. But the startling, unprogrammed, and rebellious discussion about drugs that took place among hemispheric leaders in April at a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, barely mentioned addiction, because it’s too late for that. The discussion that for the first time in forty years challenged the United States’ dominance on drug issues focused urgently instead on the ways that the financial health, political stability, and national security of virtually every country in the Americas has been undermined by the drug trade.

It is not the kind of discussion President Barack Obama might have been expecting only weeks before the summit started. He is enormously popular abroad and particularly so in places like Cartagena, where a large black population claims him as one of their own. And no hemispheric meeting has ever strayed from the official US line on drug combat. But for the first time the leaders at the summit openly debated—although behind closed doors—whether the best way to stop the rolling disaster was an end to the US-sponsored and -dictated war on drugs, and at least partial legalization, or regulation, of the drug trade.

The very word “legalization” has been taboo for so long that it was a shock to hear it mentioned as a sensible option by unimpeachable allies of the United States like Juan Manuel Santos, president of the host country; President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala; and Laura Chinchilla, president of the normally low-profile and peaceful nation of Costa Rica. Several presidents, notably Peru’s Ollanta Humala, were strongly opposed to any softening of approach, but it was only Obama’s opposition that carried weight. And it was a foregone conclusion that he would not deviate from the standard position that legalization is unthinkable; it is, after all, an election year.

The official response to whatever would get said in Cartagena was made clear in the days before the meeting by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Vice President Joseph Biden, and lastly by Obama himself. “The United States is not going to legalize or decriminalize drugs,” the president told a consortium of Latin newspapers the day before the summit, “because doing so would have serious negative consequences, in…

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