MEXICO CITY -- Three former heads of state are urging the United States to engage in a serious discussion of drug legalization, saying its counternarcotics policies are becoming untenable in the wake of voter approval last fall of measures that legalized the recreational use of marijuana in Washington state and Colorado.
The three – the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Switzerland – said the inconsistency in U.S. attitudes toward marijuana shows that American public opinion is changing, even as the U.S. continues to press Latin American nations for tough enforcement of anti-drug trafficking laws. The result is confusion and anger in Latin American nations embroiled in drug violence while Americans adopt an evermore lax approach toward marijuana.
“There’s been a great silence over these initiatives, silence by the administration and the Department of Justice, silence within the media, silence by the parties,” Cesar Gaviria, a former president of Colombia, said about the legalization push.
Gaviria, who also led the Organization of American States, the hemisphere’s oldest regional grouping, from 1994 to 2004, said nations such as Mexico look on with bewilderment at the gap between U.S. federal law, changing public attitudes and the race by states to permit medical marijuana or outright legalization. Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana, and initiatives are brewing in other states.
“Mexico has the right and the authority to tell the United States to evaluate its policies and conduct a debate,” Gaviria said. “Over there, they are avoiding this debate and any discussion over these issues.”
Gaviria spoke Thursday night at the end of a two-day forum in Mexico City by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a panel that seeks a dramatic reappraisal of drug laws. The group was set up in 2010 and includes seven former presidents, among them Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland.
In a separate interview, Henrique Cardoso said Latin governments see major contradictions among U.S. government agencies, with the Drug Enforcement Administration pressing an anti-drug agenda that is clearly not shared by a wide range of the American public.
“The DEA is more a department for foreign nations than for America,” he said. “In America, you are liberalizing marijuana. And abroad, you are insisting on strict control.”
Gaviria, Henrique Cardoso and Dreifuss all dismissed a warning by the International Narcotics Control Board earlier this week that the United States risks falling afoul of international treaties if it permits Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana.
The global narcotics accords, sometimes referred to colloquially as the Vienna Convention, were approved in 1961, 1971 and 1988, and 188 nations have signed onto them.
“The international treaties are not being followed,” Henrique Cardoso said. “What happened in Portugal, in Switzerland or the Netherlands?” he asked, referring to European nations that either decriminalized drug use or offered prescription narcotics to addicts. “They are not in compliance.”
Dreifuss said the case of Bolivia is an example that U.N. bodies are willing to bend to keep nations from bolting. Bolivia in January rejoined the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after a three-year hiatus. But first Bolivia made clear that it does not accept a ban on chewing coca leaf, a practice it considers part of the Andean nation’s indigenous heritage. Coca leaf is a raw ingredient in processing cocaine.
Calls for rethinking counterdrug strategy cut across ideology in Latin America. Another proponent is Otto Perez Molina, the rightist Guatemalan president who is a retired army general. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a centrist, also has said he would welcome a regional debate about legalizing marijuana and perhaps even cocaine.
A demand for broader discussion on alternative approaches to global drug policy has gained momentum. Six Latin nations last year successfully appealed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to hold a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in 2016 to discuss changes to global drug policy.
The Obama administration has said it would be open to debating this issue but has ruled out any talk of legalization.
Henrique Cardoso said it’s easier for former presidents than sitting presidents to support rethinking of drug laws.
“For those who are involved in electoral politics, they probably have to be more cautious because they don’t want to risk being defeated in an election,” he said. “Former presidents don’t have those kinds of risks anymore. We can be more frank.”
The leader of tiny Uruguay, onetime leftist guerrilla Jose Mujica, nine months ago announced a plan to legalize marijuana under a state monopoly. When it became apparent in December that public opinion was against the move, he withdrew the bill from Congress but said the tabling was temporary.