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Legalization of drugs spreads in Latin America. Will the US follow?

The 'war on drugs' has failed, some Latin American leaders say. But legalization of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, and other narcotics may not curb violence.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 2009



Mexico City

This year alone, two countries in Latin America have loosened punishment for personal drug consumption, and two others have moved closer to a similar scenario.

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Just a few years back, this would have provoked an outcry in the US.

In fact it did then: former Mexican President Vicente Fox tried to decriminalize small amounts of drugs – marijuana, cocaine, and heroin – for personal use and the thunder from the US effectively killed the proposal. Earlier this year, it passed without as much as a peep. "Wait and see" was the way US officials characterized their stance.

Could this mean the US sees some merit in drug legalization?

While no one expects any radical shift anytime soon in the US, those who support decriminalization say they see hopeful signs from the Obama administration, especially Washington's silence on recent movements in Latin America, including last month's Mexican law, an Argentina Supreme Court decision calling punishment for small amounts of marijuana unconstitutional, and debates in Ecuador and Brazil which are moving in a similar direction. "If this were the prior administration they would have made hay out of it," says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of Norml, a nonprofit that argues against marijuana prohibition.

Mr. St. Pierre says that part of the changing view – not shared by all – is a generational evolution that transcends continents and ideologies. The Mexican law was passed under conservative President Felipe Calderón. And a commission this year headed by three former Latin American presidents – from Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia – concluded that the "war on drugs" had failed, as has prohibition. The report calls Europe's approach toward drug use as a matter of public health more humane, while noting that demand there remains a challenge.

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