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The Prohibition of Ideas: Latin America's Rapidly Increasing, Historic Calls for Legalization Meet Staunch U.S. Resistance

Amid a dramatic turn of events in the drug policy debate, the challenge will be to sustain this momentum, even as the U.S. government works desperately to suppress it.

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Now business leaders in Monterrey and Mexico City, wary of the growing power of criminal organizations, are joining the debate with sophistication, resources and support for legalization in one form or another. And, from the left, Javier Sicilia, the influential poet turned social justice movement leader, is saying much the same. 

It's thus no surprise that Mexican foreign secretary Patricia Espinosa announced at a meeting of the Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly in late February that her government now  supported a debate on legalization.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobos announced on Friday that Presidents Calderon and Santos had both been  invited to the meeting in Guatemala on March 24, and were considering attending.

All this presents a dilemma for the U.S. government. When Vice President Biden  visited the region last week, he made clear that the Obama administration firmly opposes legalization -- but also acknowledged, as President Obama had in early 2011, that the topic was a legitimate subject for discussion. That modest concession was important, not least in sending a clear message to other federal officials, including the drug czar, senior diplomats and Pentagon officials, that outright rejection of any discussion was no longer required. It manifested yesterday when the State Department's (Acting) Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs, Mike Hammer,  stated that "We are, of course, willing to discuss the issue to express our opinion as far as why we do not see it as the best way in which to address the problem." "It is, he continued, "a serious subject and we are not in any way opposed to discussing it. Our position, though, is very clear." Latin American media quickly picked up on the slight change of tone from Washington.

This all represents a dramatic turn of events in the regional, and potentially, global debate about drug policy. In Latin America, current presidents are now taking the baton from ex-presidents in calling for a new drug policy debate with all options on the table. Respected intellectuals like Carlos Fuentes and Enrique Krauze in Mexico, Sergio Ramirez in Nicaragua and Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru are speaking out. So are distinguished former cabinet ministers as well as leaders in business, media and the arts.

The immediate political challenge will be to sustain this momentum in the face of vigorous behind-the-scenes efforts by the U.S. government to suppress the debate, notwithstanding public statements that they're open to it. The more substantive challenge will be to flesh out proposals for alternative strategies. Presidents Santos, Otto Perez Molina and others know full well that no nation can unilaterally legalize drugs, that any significant changes in direction must be pursued multilaterally, and that major reform of the failed global drug prohibition regime of the 20th century will take years and likely decades. Governments as well as non-governmental organizations in the region are just beginning to look seriously at alternative drug policy options, enlisting scholars and other policy experts.

Fortunately the drug war consensus within the United States is also dissolving. George Shultz, the former Secretary of State (and Treasury) and Paul Volcker are among the members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose bold recommendations last June stirred debate worldwide. Former President Jimmy Carter has endorsed the Global Commission's recommendations and former President Bill Clinton has repeatedly expressed regrets for the drug war excesses he condoned when he was in the White House. African-American leaders who previously supported the drug war are coming to the conclusion that it did nothing to lessen drug addiction on their communities but much to incarcerate an extraordinary number of young men and women.

Public support for legalizing marijuana is rising rapidly -- from 36 percent in favor in 2006 to 50 percent in 2011,  according to Gallup's polling. And this past week, the conservative Evangelical Christian leader, Pat Robertson, surprised lots of people by saying marijuana should be  legally regulated like alcohol, and by endorsing ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington State that would do just that if they prevail this November.

The biggest obstacle right now is the head-in-the-sand resistance within the Obama administration and Congress to any real discussion of alternative drug policy options. Censorship and self-censorship in this area within the federal government is endemic, driven by fears that any internal policy memos, or even oral discussions, that conclude with politically inconvenient recommendations, are not just unwelcome but dangerous to one's standing and career. One result is that U.S. government officials will be increasingly handicapped in the international drug policy discussions at Cartagena and elsewhere, armed only with defenses of failed U.S. policies but bereft of any in-depth analysis of the options that other governments are putting on the table. 

The worst prohibition, it must be said, is a prohibition on thinking -- and that, sadly, is what the U.S. government is guilty of today.