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Obama helps nip pot legalization in Latin America. How about in US?

President Obama helped prevent a move toward pot legalization by some Latin American leaders. But will he be as bold against Colorado, Washington state?

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    Peter Bensinger, a former Drug Enforcement Administration chief, was one of eight former DEA chiefs who recently spoke out in favor of the federal government needing to nullify Colorado and Washington's laws legalizing recreational marijuana use. They said the Obama administration has reacted too slowly and should immediately sue to force the states to rescind the legislation.
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For all the political flak that President Obama is receiving for digital surveillance of Americans, he deserves some praise for protecting Americans on another front. His administration has helped dampen moves by some Latin American leaders to legalize marijuana in the Western Hemisphere.

A meeting of the Organization of the American States ended Thursday in Guatemala without the expected “serious” discussion among the 34 nations to legalize pot. Just last month, an OAS report recommended legalization as one alternative to the current anti-drug approaches.

The report, which called for “flexibility,” came as quite a shock to many in the region. Polls in most of Latin America, unlike in the United States, show legalization to be unpopular.

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Leaders in a few states, such as Uruguay and Guatemala, favor legalization. Others, such as in Brazil and Peru, decidedly do not. Yet with two states in the US (Washington and Colorado) having legalized recreational use of pot last year, some in Latin America saw an opening to push Mr. Obama to bend.

Fortunately, his secretary of State, John Kerry, did not accommodate such voices at the OAS assembly. “These challenges simply defy any simple, one-shot, Band-Aid” approach, he said. “Drug abuse destroys lives, tears at communities of all of our countries.” Other administration officials have been working for months to squash the region's legalization efforts.

A few Latin American leaders were more explicit than Mr. Kerry. “We need a policy that is anti-crime and not pro-drug,” said Alva Baptiste, St. Lucia’s foreign minister. And Nicaragua's OAS envoy, Denis Moncada, said, “Replacing and weakening the public policies and strategies now in use to combat the hemispheric drug problem would end up creating dangerous voids and jeopardize the security and well-being of our citizens.” Many of the region’s drug experts say countries need to focus on rule of law, addiction treatment, and gang suppression.

Obama does need to be plain about federal intentions toward legalization in the US. His embattled attorney general, Eric Holder, must uphold federal law by cracking down on the selling of recreational marijuana in Washington and Colorado. If he doesn’t, the president can hardly complain about states defying aspects of his Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

Drug-producing countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Peru that have suffered from a military approach in the struggle against trafficking cannot be faulted for seeking different approaches. They are right to point to the US, which is the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs, as a major cause of their woes. But drug trafficking is also a sign that such countries need fundamental reform to root out corruption and raise social indicators. Both Mexico and Colombia are well along that path.

The uncertainties of legalizing pot, let alone the moral arguments against government promoting its use, call for Obama to be vigilant against legalization. He has now done that strongly abroad. He must do much better at home.

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