Visiting Drug-War-Torn Central America, Joe Biden Says the U.S. Will Not Change Drug Strategy
Vice President Joe Biden visited Mexico on Monday, and meets with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, and other Central American leaders, today. His trip to the drug-war ravaged region is punctuated by a sharp increase in Central American leaders' calls for legalization, but Biden saidMonday that legalization is only something "worth discussing," adding that the Obama Administration will not change its strategy.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, issued a statement explaining three key take-aways from Biden's comments. Nadelmann says that while Biden's words send a message that legalization should not be scoffed at, they also prove that U.S. legislators have not given legalization the thought it deserves. The U.S., Nadelmann says, is in need of a leader who will truly consider legalization, because so long as we live with prohibition, voices to end the drug war's disastrous consequences will continue to amplify.
Vice President Biden’s comment that “there is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization” should come as no surprise. That comment is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy, and it’s hard to imagine the administration wanting this debate to open up in an election year.
First, the Vice President did acknowledge that "it is totally legitimate for this to be raised” and “it’s worth discussing.” That’s more than he has previously conceded on the issue. It’s consistent with President Obama’s comment on January 27, 2011 – that legalization is “an entirely legitimate topic for debate.” And it sends a message to the drug czar and other federal officials who to date have rejected any such discussion out of hand that it’s now OK to at least talk about it, and perhaps engage the growing debate.
Second, what’s most striking about Biden’s comments on the subject is the flimsiness of his arguments. To focus, as he reportedly did, on the need, with legalization, to create “a costly bureaucracy to regulate the drugs and new addicts” while downplaying the fact that any such bureaucracy would cost a small fraction of what it currently costs instead to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate millions of people for drug law violations, seems absurd. “The debate,” he said, “always occurs, understandably, in the context of serious violence that occurs with the society, particularly in societies that don't have the institutional framework and the structure to deal with organized, illicit operations." But it’s worth pointing out that the debate over legalization has been most vigorous with respect to marijuana, and in countries like The Netherlands, which don’t jibe with the context Biden says is central. The shallowness of the Vice President’s comments reflects the fact that this administration, like its predecessors, has not yet bothered to even think seriously about alternatives to current policies.
And third, Biden’s public comments rejecting legalization, combined with whatever private pressures are applied by him and other U.S. officials to shut down the burgeoning debate, will almost certainly not end the discussion. Not when the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include George Shultz, Paul Volcker, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ernesto Zedillo, Cesar Gaviria, Javier Solana and others of comparable distinction, has made an impressive case both for reforming drug control policies and “breaking the taboo” on public debate. Not when Presidents Felipe Calderon, Juan Manuel Santos, Otto Perez Molina, Laura Chinchilla and others have each joined their call in various ways. Not when prominent business and other civic leaders increasingly are doing so as well. And not so long as the punitive, prohibitionist policies promoted by the U.S. government continue to wreak such great havoc in so many parts of the world.
Colombia’s President Santos, who was the first president to speak publicly, beginning in late 2011, in support of legalization, reportedly had been looking for other presidents to join him in stepping out. He’s now found just the sort of ally he needs in Guatemala’s new president, Otto Perez Molina. It’s long been said that a “Nixon goes to China” scenario is the best option for really opening up the debate about alternatives to failed prohibitionist policies. Otto Perez Molina is a political conservative and a former general who played a pivotal role two decades ago in securing the military’s agreement to the peace agreement that ended the country’s long civil war. He’s just started his four year term, and is moving forward strategically to ensure that this crucial debate is not foreclosed. This issue will be on the agenda at the annual Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April, and in national, regional and international gatherings thereafter.
Whoever is in the White House for the next four years is going to need to step up their game in this debate. Because now it’s not going away.
American citizens, too, are increasingly turning towards legalization. Voters in Washington and Colorado will decide whether to legalize marijuana this November, and for the first time, 50% of Americans support legalizing pot, not only medically, but recreationally. The Obama administration, however, is not responding to public opinion, but leading a federal attack on medical marijuana legalized by state voters. Perhaps more shocking than the government's refusal to consider calls for legalization is the people's complacency. For how long will we allow the government to lead a war that is against us?