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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.

Something incredible is happening right now in Latin America.

After decades of being brutalized by the U.S. government's failed prohibitionist drug policies, Latin American leaders, including not just distinguished former presidents but also current presidents, are saying "enough is enough." They're demanding that the range of policy options be expanded to include alternatives that help reduce the crime, violence and corruption in their own countries -- and insisting that decriminalization and legal regulation of currently illicit drug markets be considered.

Guatemala's new president, Otto Perez Molina, is providing important leadership. As a political conservative and former general, he has credibility that others lack. When he started speaking out publicly last month about the need to consider  new drug policy options including legalization, many observers thought it was just a ploy to secure greater economic and military aid from the United States. But he's demonstrated a commitment and engagement over the past month that have persuaded fellow presidents that he's serious about this. Within Guatemala, his initiative has been praised by diverse voices including prominent business leaders, Archbishop Oscar Julio Vian and the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Francisco Dall'Anese.

President Perez Molina sent his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, on a tour of neighboring countries two weeks ago to seek the support of other Central American presidents for opening up a new discussion on drug policy alternatives for the region. Most said they were willing to join the discussion. (It probably helped that U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was also touring the region that week, and alienating regional leaders with unsubstantiated claims that the drug war was working.) Now the presidents have agreed to come to Guatemala on March 24 for a wide-ranging debate on the subject.

Meanwhile, Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, who had been eager to open the debate but reportedly frustrated by the failure of other regional leaders to join him, appears to have been galvanized by the Guatemalan president's initiative. He met yesterday with former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Ricardo Lagos (Chile) and Felipe González (Spain) to talk about the best way to raise this issue at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Cartagena in April. 

Mexican President Calderon also seems  increasingly willing to engage. Having waged a multi-year battle with criminal organizations whose principal source of revenue is the illicit drug traffic to the United States, no one has greater moral authority to call for alternatives to failed prohibitionist policies. And no one knows better that one cannot win a war against what is essentially a dynamic global commodities market, especially when one's country abuts the largest consumer market in the world. He put his toes in the water last year when he started saying that the United States should consider "market alternatives" if it were unable to reduce its demand for illegal drugs. And he followed up by joining with regional leaders in late 2011 in the "Tuxtla Declaration," which stated that if the demand for illegal drugs could not be reduced, "authorities in the consuming countries ought then to explore possible alternatives to eliminate the exorbitant profits of the criminals, including regulatory or market oriented options to this end. Thus, the transit of substances that continue provoking high levels of crime and violence in Latin American and Caribbean nations will be avoided."

Calls for drug policy reform are proliferating rapidly in Mexico. Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, pulls no punches in saying that legalization is the best approach. Fox's predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, joined with former Brazilian president Cardoso and former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria in organizing first a Latin American and then a Global Commission on Drug Policy, both of which called for major reform of drug policies, including legal regulation of marijuana, and also for "breaking the taboo" on considering all drug policy options, including legal regulation.