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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.
While the presidents of Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica and El Salvador have voiced support for an end to the drug war, President Obama rejected their calls for drug legalization during high-level talks at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia. Obama warned that legalization could lead to greater problems, but he expressed willingness to hold a discussion on drug policy. He also announced more than $130 million in aid for increasing security and pursuing narco-traffickers and drug cartels in Latin America. We speak with Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He joins us from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he is attending the World Economic Forum’s regional Latin America meeting. We are also joined by Greg Grandin, author of "Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism." [includes rush transcript]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He is joining us from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where he’s attending the World Economic Forum’s regional Latin American meeting, but here to talk about the significance of this meeting that has taken place, the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. We’re also joined by Greg Grandin of New York University, Latin American history professor there.

Ethan Nadelmann, the significance of President Obama’s stance against decriminalization or any kind of legalization of drugs, the position he’s taken on drug policy, and the leaders in Latin America, what they have said in response?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, I would not put that much significance into President Obama saying he’s opposed to legalization or decriminalization. That’s sort of the standard patter one expects from the politicians. They’ve been scared of their own shadows on this issue for a very long time.

But what’s much more important, Amy, is sort of looking at the tea leaves in all this stuff, because that’s why this summit is even—notwithstanding the nuance of the comments that were made—is really going to go down in a sort of historic way in terms of the transformation of the regional and global dialogue around drug policy. This is the first time ever that you’ve had a president, and for that matter, a vice president, saying this is a legitimate subject of discussion, the decriminalization, legalization. This is the first you’ve had a president saying that we’re willing to look at the possibility that U.S. drug policies are doing more harm than good in some parts of the world.

So, then you have the other leaders in the region. President Santos is, you know, as was just said before, an important ally of the United States, the former defense minister under President Uribe, somebody with a lot of credibility in waging a drug war. And he’s very focused on opening this up. And he’s not—you know, Time magazine has him on the cover this week as the emerging Latin American leader of significance. Otto Pérez Molina is very focused. Laura Chinchilla, the president of Costa Rica, came away saying she was very pleased that the Central American nations were benefiting because of the opening of this discussions. You have the funny situation of Evo Morales, the leftist leader of Bolivia, former head of the coca growers’ union, lecturing the United States about—essentially, sounding like Milton Friedman, that "How can you expect us to reduce the supply when there is a demand?" So there’s the beginning of a change here. I don’t think it’s going to be possible to put this genie back in the bottle.

AMY GOODMAN: Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón renewed calls on the United States, the world’s largest market for illegal drugs, to do more to curb consumption, as well.