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Obama Addresses Drug Legalization at Cartagena Summit [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #730)
Consequences of Prohibition
Drug War Issues

Responding to a growing clamor from his Latin America colleagues at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, last weekend, US President Barack Obama broached the subject of drug legalization, if only to dismiss it. But other hemispheric heads of state want this weekend's summit to be the beginning of the discussion, not the end.

Pres. Obama with Colombian Pres. Juan Manuel Santos, Brazilian Pres. Dilma Rouseff, and MSNBC's Chris Matthews (
Pressures that have been building for a decade or more have only intensified in recent months, with Latin American leaders including Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, and even Mexican President Felipe Calderon calling for a frank and open discussion of alternatives to US-style war on drugs.

The calls come against a backdrop of decades of drug war in Colombia, where tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in a US-backed and -financed war on drugs that morphed into a counterinsurgency campaign after the 911 attacks more than a decade ago. The $7 billion or so the US has spent since implementing Plan Colombia under President Clinton has succeeded in reducing Colombian cocaine production, but only to see production increase in Peru and Bolivia, and only at a high cost in terms of human rights and rule of law in Colombia.

Similarly, the Mexican drug wars, which have left a toll of more than 50,000 dead in less than five years and revealed extensive and corrosive corruption, as well as human rights abuses, within Mexican law enforcement and the military, have in recent years begun bleeding into Central America. The northern tier of Central American countries -- Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador -- now have some of the world highest murder rates, and leaders of three of those countries attended a meeting on the theme of alternatives to the drug war last month hosted by Guatemalan President Perez.

Those pressures led US officials, including inveterate drug warrior Vice-President Joe Biden, to make an historic concession in the past few weeks: Drug legalization and other drug law reforms are indeed a legitimate arena of discussion, the Obama administration grudgingly allowed in response.

The pressure continued even before the summit officially got underway Saturday. On Friday, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, told the BBC that current drug war policies were unworkable.

"We call for a responsible, serious dialogue in which we scientifically analyze what is happening with the war on
drugs," the former general said.

Perez Molina elaborated in an interview with Agence-France Presse on Saturday.

"The war we have waged over the past 40 years has not yielded results. It's a war which, to speak frankly, we are losing," he said. "Meanwhile, the black market continues to exist and dollars and weapons continue to flow in from the United States. The way we are fighting this war, we cannot win," he added.

Perez Molina downplayed Obama's dismissal of legalization, noting that he "will not innovate" while facing reelection, but adding that there is "growing awareness among (US) officials, which they have not expressed but that we know they have discussed in think tanks, non-governmental organizations, academic circles, that it is necessary to seek other alternatives" to the war on drugs. We are beginning to see that Washington is ready to begin a dialogue, although not on decriminalization of drugs," Perez said.

Also on Saturday, in remarks reported by CNN, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos added to the pressure, saying that continuing current prohibitionist policies was like riding a "stationary bike": working hard, but making little forward progress.

"I think the time has come to simply analyze if what we are doing is the best we could be doing, or if we can find an alternative that would be more effective and less costly to society. One extreme can be to put all users in prison; on the other extreme, legalization. In the middle there may be more practical policies, such as decriminalizing consumption but putting all the efforts into interdiction," he said.

"This is a topic of extreme political sensitivity," Santos added.

On Saturday, in remarks reported by USA Today, President Obama responded at some length, first in a meeting with business leaders that also included Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Colombian President Santos, and later at the opening session of the summit.

"I think it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places," Obama said at the meeting of business leaders. "I personally, and my administration's position is, that legalization is not the answer, that in fact if you think about how it would end up operating, the capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries, if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting than the status quo," he said.

Obama elaborated at the opening session. "Unfortunately, the drug trade is integrated, and we can't look at the issue of supply in Latin America without also looking at the issue of demand in the United States," Obama said. "I think the American people understand that the toll of narco-trafficking on the societies of Central America, Caribbean, and parts of South America are brutal, and undermining the capacity of those countries to protect their citizens, and eroding institutions and corrupting institutions in ways that are ultimately bad for everybody," he said.

"So this is part of the reason why we've invested... about $30 billion in prevention programs, drug treatment programs looking at the drug issue not just from a law enforcement and interdiction issue, but also from a public health perspective. This is why we've worked in unprecedented fashion in cooperation with countries like Mexico on not just drugs coming north, but also guns and cash going south."

"This is one of the reasons why we have continued to invest in programs like Plan Colombia, but also now are working with Colombia, given their best practices around issues of citizen security, to have not just the United States but Colombia provide technical assistance and training to countries in Central America and the Caribbean in finding ways that they can duplicate some of the success that we've seen in Colombia. So we're mindful of our responsibilities on this issue."

While Obama reiterated that legalization is a legitimate topic of debate, he also reiterated that "the United States will not be going in this direction." (See the link above for full video and a transcript.)

Instead, it appears inexorably wedded to doing more of the same old same old. Obama announced at that summit that the way the US would address the concerns raised by the Latin American leaders would be to throw more money at them. He announced an increase to more than $130 million of funding designed to provide assistance to regional police and military forces to tackle the drug traffickers the Central American gangs that are increasingly allied with them.

But as the summit ended Sunday afternoon, President Obama seemed to take pains to indicate that his administration is open to further discussions on the theme.

"I think it is wholly appropriate to address this issue," he said in response to a question at the final press conference. "The smaller Central American and Caribbean countries are feeling overwhelmed, and there is the violence in Mexico. It wouldn't make sense not to examine what works and what doesn't and to constantly try to ask ourselves if there is something we can do to prevent violence, to weaken these drug traffickers, to make sure they're not peddling this stuff to our kids and perpetrating violence in the region. I'm not somebody who believes legalization is a path toward solving this problem," he underlined, "but there are additional steps we can take to be more creative and ways we can combine law enforcement and interdiction approaches with the public health approach that I think is important back home. I'm looking forward to continuing to have that conversation."

"This is one of many issues that some countries want to put on the table," said President Santos, seeming to scold the press for placing such an emphasis on the drug issue. "This was one of the issues we discussed. We heard positions from the US and other countries; they were all laid out on the table, and this is a positive step."

The Cartagena summit is now history. The drug war rolls on, but the US is now on notice from its neighbors that the drug war status quo is not tolerable, and the US has indicated that it is open to further exploration of the issue. The Obama administration has not taken the great leap of embracing drug legalization, but it has now gone further than any previous US administration is admitting there may be alternatives to perpetual drug war.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Tony Aroma (not verified)

The Obama administration has not taken the great leap of embracing drug legalization, but it has now gone further than any previous US administration is admitting there may be alternatives to perpetual drug war.

Not true.  The Obama administration has done nothing nor admitted anything.  They've basically said, "talk all you want amongst yourselves, but we're not changing our mind."  Kind of like a parent trying to quiet their bothersome child when they keep asking why they can't borrow the car on Saturday.  "We'll talk about it later."  But in the end, the answer is still no, and the reason is, "because I said so."  When it comes to drug policy, the US is the parent and anyone who questions the policy is treated like a misguided child, at best, that must be shown the error of their ways.

Sun, 04/15/2012 - 8:36pm Permalink
William Aiken (not verified)

In reply to by Tony Aroma (not verified)

At the Drug Reform Conference in New Mexico two years, Ethan Nadelman pointed out how President Obama is a different person than George W. Bush. His observation turned out to be right, only the difference is that Obama has been worse than W. on the drug war. First, Bush got rid of the JAG grants which fund these violent, SWAT Style drug raids all across the country. Obama brought the JAG grants back. During the  Obama's administration first three years they has performed more raids on dispensaries than Bush did in his two terms. Obama's budget for fighting the drug war has increased from Bush's drug budget. Finally, Obama appointed ardent drug warrior Michele Leonhart to run the DEA. Her motto is to grab and seize any many assets as possible, including those of legal dispensaries. 

I hope more people like Tony wake up to the fact that Obama views this issue through a political lens that will lead to tougher policies without explaining them in any detail. I voted for Obama in 08, but I don't plan to whore my vote for the lesser of two evils. Romney hasn't had to address this issue. But it could very well be that during this election, these two will get into a pissing contest as to who is the tougher one on drugs. A vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for our future and the future of change.

Mon, 04/16/2012 - 10:25am Permalink
Jim Rogers (not verified)



  Another 130 Mil. into the black hole known as the American war on drugs. Thousands of people are dying and all Obama can say is"I think it's wholly appropriate to address this issue". how brutally condescending can you possibly be. Now that we know how King Obama feels about the misery,death and political deterioration that is taking place with our southern neighbors, we should all sleep better tonight,Lord knows he will.

  Where is Obama going to get $130,000,000.00 dollars. Do we deliver cash(freshley printed), or does he just bring down the big American check book. What am I saying,It will probably be a direct deposit.


Sun, 04/15/2012 - 9:58pm Permalink
Thinking Clearly (not verified)

There is no choice in the next election as far as I am concerned between the Republicans and the Democrats. The two main frontrunners are both anti legalization. They are both stuck on stupid with regards to the War On Drugs.

Ignoring parties altogether, there are only two viable choices in my mind: Ron Paul and Gary Johnson.

Come November 2012, one of those two fella's looks like he will get my vote.

The idea of casting a vote for Romney or Obama makes me sick to my stomach.

Mon, 04/16/2012 - 6:34am Permalink
John Hunter (not verified)

I too will be voting third party this year.  Obama and his administration seems to have a bit of a problem understanding basic math; they won the last election by 9 million vote, and there are 25 million perspective criminals (in their eyes) voting in this years election.  Go figure!

Mon, 04/16/2012 - 9:55am Permalink
Anon (not verified)

One would have to be a fool to vote for Obama on the basis of the lesser of two evils or as a democrat on auto-pilot.  Obama has already shown to be much harsher than Bush Jr. on the drug war.  And once he get reelected he has little incentive to back down.  He probably will continue to avoid any legalization reforms and focus on a drug problem that needs interdiction or incarceration with his large budget instead of debating anything.

As stringent as Romney might be in a continued drug war, he would still be somewhat limited to implement any serious changes for fear of losing voters for a second term.  Not that drug reformers and drug consumers should vote Romney, but rather anybody but Obama.  Obama in my opinion is the worst pick if you are concerned about drug war reform.  I think the best choice is Ron Paul.  He would be rational with Latin America.  Although Gary Johnson would be a good choice, Ron Paul has thousands more supporters.  Ron Paul, despite the media black out and disinformation campaign, is still, in real terms, at least as popular as Romney and could have a real chance as an independent.

Anybody but Obama.  Tell Michelle that you are "not in."

Mon, 04/16/2012 - 5:03pm Permalink
Robin S. (not verified)

The United States effort to wage war against drugs has gone on for many years. This war has cost billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, incarcerated thousands, but has not successfully eliminated the "drug problem". American Opinion is starting to shift in the past decade toward legalization of marijuana, with many states allowing medical marijuana usage, the percentage of americans who want all out legalization is above 50%. Decriminalization of drug offenses would be a good idea, since the majority of drug offenses are non-violent crimes that pose little danger to society. It costs over 40k to incarcerate and take care on an inmate for one year. This is a serious drain on the economies of the states. In regards to economics, keeping drugs illegal is actually benifiting the cartels and organized crime. Demand is high in North America and other countries, and the illegality of drugs ensures that supply is lessened which raises the price of the very inexpensively produced drugs. Cartel and organized crime leaders who are hiding and protected in South America, know economics and if drugs were legal their profits from trafficing drugs would drop significantly. By keeping drugs illegal, the United States and other countries are actually supporting to a great degree the profit of cartels. Some of the opponents to legalization argue that the legalization of drugs would result in an increase in addicts. But we have no evidence in our history to prove the validity of this argument. But, I am confident that the American people are more than capable of being well informed about drug use through D.A.R.E. programs and Health classes, to be able to make a decision on whether or not they will use drugs recreationally. It should be left to the individual to make this choice, not the government and the government should recognize its failing role in trying to regulate and outlaw the drug trade, coupled with the increasing public support of legalization, which will eventually dictate who the public will vote into office. The way things are going now, the next president, govenor, representative elected to office will probably have to take a pro-legalization stance to be a winner of the public vote.


Tue, 04/17/2012 - 11:59am Permalink
Paul McKannon (not verified)

In reply to by Robin S. (not verified)

"But, I am confident that the American people are more than capable of being well informed about drug use through D.A.R.E. program"

Robin, you cannot be serious. The D.A.R.E. program provides training for the drug war Hitler Youth. Kids are encouraged to inform on their friends and parents to the police. They are pumped full of lies, distortion of facts, and misrepresentations. The information kids get about the science of drugs is usually propaganda-based. D.A.R.E. is a tool of the prohibitionist government to keep kids (and everyone else) in lockstep with narco-fascist drug war policies. It doesn't "keep kids off drugs". It fosters deception and keeps us tuned into the Reefer Madness mindset. D.A.R.E. to tell kids the truth about drugs and drug policy! D.A.R.E. them to oppose the police state. D.A.R.E. them to join NORML instead.

Sat, 04/21/2012 - 1:21am Permalink
MoparCzy (not verified)

In reply to by Paul McKannon (not verified)

There was a study of how effective DARE was.  Answer NOT.  Even after all of the money thrown at the DARE program there was no reduction it the use/abuse of drugs by the young people targeted.  


As far as this years election goes then yes please vote for someone other than the two main parties.  We need to get millions of Americans to wake up to the fact that there are other options besides the same two sided coin.  Today there is no real difference between the Democrats and Republicans.  They both want us to sit back and let them ruin the country.

Sat, 04/21/2012 - 1:58pm Permalink
Peter stevenson (not verified)

In reply to by Robin S. (not verified)

A cursory review of our history demonstrates evidence that the drug war-not legalization-causes an increase in addicts. When the Volsted Act was passed by Congress and prohibition became the law of the land there was a temporary decrease in alcohol use soon to be followed by an explosion of drinking otherwise known as "The Roaring Twenties". Alcohol use increased during prohibition most notably among women who-while previously shunning the taverns-were now attracted to the "romance" of breaking the law and among children who found illegal hooch very easy to come by. Indeed, many children were employed by the bootleggers as lookouts and were paid in booze which resulted in an explosion of childhood alcoholism.

Looking back at the thirty year old experiment in drug prevention known as D.A.R.E. the results are clear. Those graduates of DARE have the same rate of drug experimentation as those who never heard of the program. The only difference is that DARE graduates are more likely to go on with heavier drug use. 

Evidence based public awareness campaigns have been helpful in reducing smoking rates but if you wanted to create a society of addicts I could not envision a more efficient method than prohibition-with an emphasis on law enforcement and interdiction.

Sun, 04/22/2012 - 11:42am Permalink
kaptinemo (not verified)

"I personally, and my administration's position is, that legalization is not the answer, that in fact if you think about how it would end up operating, the capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries, if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting than the status quo,"

Now, did you catch that? Obama was assuming business as usual, that the cartels would continue after re-legalization, still able to command the prices they presently enjoy thanks to prohibition...after prohibition ends. Not only that, but he is assuming a lack of a regulated market...again, after prohibition ends.

This is absolute BS. Intellectually insulting hogwash. The cartels would fold as fast as the old booze ones did right after the 21st Amendment was passed. Weed and other such items would never be sold without licensing and regulation. The only reason the Mob was still around was because of the 'bolt-hole' they crawled into that was left open thanks to illicit drugs.

Who The F- is writing his anti-drug speeches, nowadays?

Tue, 04/17/2012 - 1:11pm Permalink
David762 (not verified)

President Obama / Barry Soetoro is much worse than GW Bush when it comes to Prohibition and civil liberties. I equate Obama's alleged time as a Constitutional Law "Scholar" similarly to a Mafia / Mafiya consigliere going to law school in order to learn how to "break the law" without getting caught. He has certainly destroyed the USA Constitution & Bill of Rights more completely that GW Bush ever did.

It is ironic that whatever case against Obama not actually being a USA citizen, rather than being Indonesian or Kenyan, is being reinforced by Obama himself. There appears to be no particular level of patriotism or love of country that Obama demonstrates toward the USA Constitution & Bill of Rights, just as one would expect from a foreign national.

There are al least 3 names associated with Barry Soetoro / Barack Obama, including the one associated with the Connecticut Social Security Number issued to a now 90+ year old Connecticut man that he uses to this day ---- 3 names, 3 countries of origin, 3 religious affiliations (Moslem, Communist, & Christian), and at least 2 Social Security Numbers. No (successful) illegal alien has ever held as little evidence of USA citizenship as does President Obama.

There is some fragmentary evidence that Barack Obama attended prep school, college, and university in the USA as a foreign student. There is also evidence that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii USA. There is also evidence that Obama adopted his step-father's Moslem religion in order to attend Islamic religious school in Indonesia.

Considering the lack of evidence of his USA citizenship, a situation now being thoroughly investigated by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, AZ, it is astonishing how little respect for the truth, for rights of citizens, for the rule of law, for the balance of power between branches of government, and even citizenship or right to life of real citizens that Obama has.

Before We the People of the USA go to the polls again to vote for President in November 2012, we need to ascertain that Obama is legally & Constitutionally qualified as a naturalized USA citizen. I have my doubts ...

Thu, 04/19/2012 - 5:22am Permalink

Where we really expecting anything different from President Obama? Not really, this is not the news. The novelty is the Latin American presidents finally proposing a change in this failed policy and being serious about it in spite of the US's opposition. Things could change rapidly in Latin America since most of the violence is caused by their own domestic market, not the drug exports and so, they do not have to wait for the US to change its mind. Even President Calderon from Mexico, one of the main supporters of the war on drugs, declared that the summit in Colombia had been a success and that this could derive in a reinforced strategy. Is he opening a window for change? He could do so once the election has passed. 

So what would happen to the US if Latin America legalizes? 

It would be left alone to face the absurdity of prohibition. No masks, no lies, no allies, no scapegoats. 

Thu, 04/19/2012 - 12:01pm Permalink
OldVet (not verified)

Sadly, the United States government cannot be trusted in this war on drugs because the first casualty in any war is truth. If Obama is honest, if he really thinks that he has such high moral and ethical standards, he will share with the American people documents pertaining to the drug trade between Mexico and the United States. Of particular interest is the NAFTA period while Clinton was in office, and his coffee klatch in the White House with Gary Jacobs, CEO and manager of the Laredo National Bank.  It would be surprising if Clinton wasn't aware that NLB and another border bank controlled by the wealthy and powerful Carlos Hank Gonzalez family were being investigated for laundering Mexican drug money. What was going on? Several agencies working with the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center including the FBI, Interpol, and the DEA collaborated on an investigation into the wheeling and dealing of Mexico's "Godfather" of the PRI, a former elementary school teacher who made billions of dollars while holding public office. It was widely believed that Gonzalez, with his sons Jorge and Carlos, were shipping huge amounts of cocaine into the U.S. The investigation was conclusive, the evidence overwhelming.

So why did former Attorney General Janet Reno have the " Operation White Tiger" report scrapped, and when part of it was leaked to a newspaper, why did she apologize to the Gonzalez family? And what role did former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman (R-NH) have in representing the Gonzalez, being a go-between with the Justice Department?

What is continuing is a charade, and Mr. Obama needs to explain what has happened, why wealthy drug lords in expensive suits get a pass while a disabled vet can't legally smoke a joint to alleviate pain. He has not explained himself and it is high time (no joke) he did. Stonewall and hide the truth, exert more pressure, make more arrests, jail more offenders, continue to support the massacre in Mexico? I hope that is not the Obama Legacy because it will make him no better than his predecessors, and maybe probably a lot worse.

Thu, 04/19/2012 - 1:48pm Permalink
Captain Dagg (not verified)

That I am still incredulous after so many years of the same seemingly nonsensical unyielding paradigm of fear and denial that these world leaders operate in made me realize something that may be important. They're  (drug war promoters) are not preventing drug use. They're not saving any lives. They're not preventing a cultural doomsday that could (never would actually) result from drug legalization. I know this. "We" know this. It does not require enlightenment or special intelligence to know this. So, these world leaders are smart people. They didn't get where they are by being lazy, stupid, or ignorant. So they MUST know it too. NOW, what does this mean? 


MAYBE, if we really want this movement to succeed - STOPPING the war on drugs - we need to recognize that the issue must not actually be drugs. Does the government need the drug enforcement medium as a venue for weapons trade/evaluation? Perhaps it is the war machine that gets its jollies off on it. They know its an infinite war and therefore a golden egg for them. 

Perhaps stopping the war on drugs will succeed if the real issues are identified. Otherwise, stopping the war on drugs will perpetuate itself just like the war on drugs. The war on drugs battle is designed to be eternal, thus the legitimate premise for clandestine purpose - a very effective strategy for immortality. Unless those clandestine purposes are addressed, we are fighting an illusory battle. 


Just a thought.   

Thu, 04/19/2012 - 2:36pm Permalink
Peter stevenson (not verified)

In reply to by Captain Dagg (not verified)

What we need to recognize is who the players are. The Partnership For a Drug Free America receives the bulk of it's funding from the pharmaceutical industry, the association of distilleries and the tobacco industry. You can do drugs in their "drug free America" so long as you do "their" drugs-many of which are more deadly than the drugs they suppress.

Sun, 04/22/2012 - 11:53am Permalink
Daniel (not verified)

 Everybody keeps talking about Obama like he is the one that makes the laws in this country. There are 2 Houses and neither party is doing anything either. The issue about drug reform has been put in front of House and Senate members and then does not go anywhere from there. If there is nothing to be gained from marijuana use, then why is it ok that the big drug companies are refining cannabis down to pill form to sell to people. Could that be a money issue?  And how is it that the big drug companies can legally sell drugs, (approved by the FDA), with enough side effects to seriously hurt or kill thousands of people? Could that be about money also? And the US Government keeps inseminating billions of US dollars into the drug whore and the drug whore is getting stronger. Cut off the cash flow and the drug whore is not at profitable and get smaller. hat a total waste of needed money. 

Thu, 04/19/2012 - 10:06pm Permalink
kleptotruth was me (not verified)

As I have said for fully forty years there is no "drug war".  It is a war

on the minds of free thinking people, a war on freedom itself, a war on the

constitution, and a corrupt ruse of jackboot thugs hell-bent on instituting

(successfully) a nazi regime of power tripping thieves and scoundrels.

Fri, 04/20/2012 - 10:45am Permalink

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