When the recent Summit of the Americas in Colombia decided to commission a study on whether to decriminalize drugs, many thought that would be the end of it, and the whole thing would be quickly forgotten. Well, maybe not.
For starters, it was the first time that such a large group of heads of state ventured into that once taboo area. And there are several other non-related factors that may contribute to put decriminalization in the front burner later this year, or in early 2013.
At a closed meeting during the April 14-15 summit of President Barack Obama and 29 other regional leaders, Obama agreed to ask the Organization of American States to look into possible alternatives to the four-decade-old U.S.-backed war on drugs, which many say is failing. No further details were given.
Earlier this week, I called OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza to find out whether this is something we should take seriously.
Skeptics say the leaders did what they usually do when they don't know how to solve a problem: they kicked it forward. It will take years for the OAS commission to make its recommendations, they say.
But supporters note that the region's pro-legalization movement is gaining momentum, and that the OAS study may give it further legitimacy.
Only a decade ago, the debate about drug legalization was limited to academic circles, they note. Then, in 2009, three former presidents -- Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia -- issued a joint statement supporting decriminalization of marijuana. Later, former Mexican President Vicente Fox suggested an even more drastic proposal: legalizing all drugs.
Earlier this year, for the first time, a sitting Latin American president -- Guatemala's Otto Perez Molina -- called for considering an across-the-board legalization of drugs. Shortly thereafter, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he supports a "serious debate" on the issue at the Cartagena summit, which ended with the mandate to the OAS.
Asked how soon the OAS will complete the study, Insulza told me that they want to finish it by the end of this year, and release it by next March.
It will be a comprehensive study that will look into the business of drug trafficking, the success or failure of various European countries that have experimented with decriminalization and regulation of the drug trade, as well as ways to improve education, prevention and rehabilitation, he said. Several other regional institutions, including the Pan American Health Organization and the Inter-American Development Bank, will participate in the study, he added.
"What will be new is that we will offer several alternatives to what is being done right now," Insulza said. "The idea is not to tell presidents what should be done, but to give them a menu of options."
My opinion: Several factors will converge late this year, or in early 2013, to place the drug debate at the top of the U.S.-Latin American diplomatic agenda.
First, Mexico will inaugurate a new president in December, and -- no matter what the candidates say now -- the winner of the July 1 election will want to create distance from the current war on drugs, which has left more than 50,000 dead over the past five years.
Second, California, Oregon and Washington are scheduled to include pro-marijuana legalization propositions on their ballots in this November's elections. A victory of one or more of those propositions would embolden legalization forces, and weaken Latin America's resolve to fight the drug cartels militarily.
Third, the OAS study may include decriminalization of marijuana among its "menu of options," encouraging more presidents to join the pro-decriminalization camp. The OAS, which has not been doing a good job defending democracy or human rights lately, may take its drug policy mandate seriously, if anything else to become more relevant.
A blanket legalization of hard drugs may not be the best idea, but if the OAS report concludes that decriminalization of marijuana would give countries more resources to help combat harder drugs, it will be a better alternative than the war on drugs that is costing so many lives -- and money -- nowadays.
Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.
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