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.
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"A paradigm shift is required away from repression of drug users and towards treatment and prevention," wrote former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in an editorial after the commission report was released in February.Skip to next paragraph
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Health hazards still a concern
But the debate on how to stem drug use and reduce the organized crime that has overtaken swaths of Latin America rages on. In the United Nations 2009 World Drug Report, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says that enforcement priorities should refocus from drug users to drug traffickers. But he argues forcefully against repealing drug controls on economic, health, and security grounds.
"It does send a mixed message. If this is so bad, how come it's legal in certain economies?" says Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Mexican officials say the intent of decriminalizing small amounts of narcotics is to free up resources and jail space. Yet those proponents of reduced punishments for personal drug use warn that policies may seem more progressive than they actually are. "Everyone has focused on decriminalization in Mexico but the name of the law itself is the Law against Small Drug Traffickers," says Jorge Hernández Tinajero, the president of Cupihd, a civil group in Mexico that disseminates information about drug policies. In other words, he says, its intent is not to make Mexico a new haven for drug users but to direct resources at small-time sellers, hardening Mexico's tough approach toward fighting organized crime.
Though he says he supports the law's distinction between user and criminal, Mr. Hernández Tinajero says that it could end up creating more opportunities for corruption – even though another one of its goals is to reduce it – on the part of the police taking bribes from those carrying more than the legal amounts permitted.
The law goes into effect at a time in Mexico when more than 13,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in nearly three years. And in the context of violence, which few expect to dissipate any time soon, the new law could provoke a backlash. "It opens up the door to place all the blame on the consumer," he says.
Part I: Which four countries in Latin America are decriminalizing drugs? Click here to read the story.