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'This Debate Will No Longer be Suppressed': Legalizing Drugs Breaks Into the Mainstream

Latin American leaders are increasingly speaking out against prohibition. And public opinion in America, especially when it comes to legalizing pot, is shifting very rapidly.

The following is a transcript of a Democracy Now!interview with Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance. 

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Central American leaders agreed to debate the idea of legalization at a gathering later this month, but while in Mexico Vice President Biden said, quote, "there is no possibility" the U.S. will back legalization.

We’re joined right now by Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He recently visited Mexico and Guatemala for high-level talks on drug issues. He’s joining us from Houston, Texas, where he’s speaking at a conference on the drug war at the James Baker Institute for Pubic Policy at Rice University.

Ethan Nadelmann, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of Biden’s trip, what he was demanding of the Central American leaders and what they are responding.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, I’ll tell you, Amy, there were really three things that stood out to me about Biden’s trip down there. The first one was that even though he said the U.S. government is not going to talk about this, he did acknowledge that this is legitimate subject for debate. He raised that a number of times, and thereby repeated what President Obama had briefly said last year, but which none of the lower-level officials in the U.S. government had been willing to say. So I think it’s important that he’s sending a message to say that the United States would at least participate in a debate, which is more than they’ve ever said before. Now, obviously that’s just reading tea leaves.

I think the second thing was the flimsiness of his arguments. I mean, what you saw is that the way—he says, "What happens if you legalize drugs, we’ll have a vast bureaucracy to regulate drugs," ignoring the fact that the bureaucracy we have, the prison-industrial complex, costs dramatically more than any regulatory system ever would.

And I think the third thing that was significant is that Biden’s trip, in his words, are not going to shut down this debate. This discussion now has a serious momentum. You know, it’s from the Latin American presidents commission, to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, then President Santos in Colombia, now Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala opening it up in the region. So this debate now is no longer going to be suppressed.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Ethan Nadelmann, the timing of Biden’s visit is particularly noteworthy, because obviously Mexico is heading toward a presidential election in July. And he met not only with the current president, Felipe Calderón, but he also met with all three of the candidates, the major party candidates, who are running in the election in July. It almost seems as the U.S. government wants to line them all up, even before the new leader is chosen, to assure that Mexico maintains the stance that Felipe Calderón has had over the past several years on the drug war.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, they can see that President Calderón is having serious qualms about the strategy. I mean, you quoted before that he was in the United States saying if the U.S. cannot reduce its demand, we have to look at market alternatives to reduce the negative consequences, effectively, of the failed prohibitionist policy. There was a Central American gathering called the Tuxtla gathering, Tuxtla Declaration, in December, where President Calderón and others made the same sort of statement. So they see that Calderón is, you know, fighting this war on drugs. They see that it has not, by and large, been successful. They also see that his two predecessors—President Fox is now out there openly calling for the legalization of drugs, and his predecessor, President Zedillo, has joined with the former presidents of Brazil and Colombia, Cardoso and Gaviria, as part of these global commissions to call for fundamentally different drug policies. So I think what they’re trying to do is lock in whoever the next Mexican president is.