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At Historic Summit, Obama Rejects Fed Up Latin American Leaders' Calls for Drug Legalization

This Summit of the Americas will become an historic moment in the rapidly transforming, global drug policy debate.

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PRESIDENT FELIPE CALDERÓN: [translated] Consumer countries—generally, the United States—should make a bigger effort to reduce consumption, and consequently, the extraordinary flow of economic resources that goes into the hands of the criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the Colombian president himself, as you mentioned, Santos, I mean, who’s been the recipient of millions in drug war money, still coming out for decriminalization. Ethan Nadelmann?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, you know, it’s an interesting time for President Calderón. I mean, his term ends later this year. He has waged the war on drugs for a long time. He’s pointing his finger at the United States and saying, "Why don’t you reduce your demand and stop sending so many guns down our way?" You know, at the summit, he expressed his appreciation for new organized crime agreements. But at the same time, he’s also floating and supporting this new discussion. When he was in the United States last year traveling around, he started saying, if the U.S. cannot reduce its demand for illegal drugs, it’s time for it to investigate, quote-unquote, "market alternatives," which was seen correctly as codeword for legal alternatives. His foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, in February said that now Mexico does in fact support a debate about the legalization issue. So, the real question, I think, with Calderón is, in the extended period in which he’s a lame duck, after the election in July but before he leaves office in December, will he speak out? Will he make an effort to speak more boldly, in the way that Santos and Otto Pérez Molina are right now?

And the other question is his likely successor, Peña Nieto, coming from the old PRI party, the one that dominated Mexican politics for something like seven decades. The general thought has been that he just wants to sort of put all this—go back to the old understanding between government and gangsters, that PRI model for so many years. But as one former president, César Gaviria, said to me recently, when somebody becomes president, they’re faced with a new situation. So the new president of Mexico, come next year, is going to have to decide, does he want to let this whole debate dwindle? Does he want to just keep suffering the consequences of a failed U.S. policy? Or does he want to actively participate in the initiatives of Santos, Otto Pérez Molina, Chinchilla and others?

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the fact that this is an election year, Ethan Nadelmann?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, it simply means that you’re not going to hear much of this in U.S. politics. I’ll be curious to see whether Fox News or Romney’s campaign try to pick on Obama even for the modest acknowledgments he made. But the interesting thing, of course, Amy, on this issue is that this is very much an issue that’s of the left and the right. As was said before, some of the leading proponents of drug policy reform in the region are coming from the right and the center-right, both the current presidents, Santos and Otto Pérez Molina, but also former presidents, like Cardoso, Gaviria and Zedillo from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, who are the ones who spearheaded these important global commissions that helped open up the issue. In the United States, you know, the two lions of the conservative movement in the late 20th century, William Buckley and Milton Friedman, it’s in the Republican Party primaries that you hear libertarians like Ron Paul and Gary Johnson talking to this issue. You know, it’s people like former Secretary of State George Shultz or Frank Carlucci who are clearly opposed to the drug war. It’s Grove Norquist, the anti-talks partisan, who’s very much a committed opponent of the drug war. So this is very much a bipartisan issue. We’re not going to see the same sorts of sniping from left and right on this issue as on others. And I think that means that this debate is going to grow stronger and more bolder as a result.