U.S. Remains Opposed to Drug Legalization, Biden Tells Region

The New York Times on March 5, 2012 released the following:


MEXICO CITY — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. delivered a blunt message on Monday to leaders in Latin America who are contemplating opening the door to the legalization of illicit drugs: The United States will not budge in its opposition.

Mr. Biden, beginning a two-day trip to Mexico and Honduras ahead of a regional summit meeting next month, told reporters that he welcomed a debate over legalization, but then he knocked down the arguments in favor of it.

He said he sympathized with Latin American leaders who are frustrated over violence tied to the drug trade and with the consumption habits in its biggest market, the United States. But the few potential benefits from legalization, like a smaller prison population, would be offset by problems, including a costly bureaucracy to regulate the drugs and new addicts, Mr. Biden said.

“I think it warrants a discussion. It is totally legitimate,” he said. “And the reason it warrants a discussion is, on examination you realize there are more problems with legalization than with nonlegalization.”

Mr. Biden made his comments shortly after meeting with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, who has said that “market alternatives” — a phrase that many have taken as code for legalization — should be considered by the United States if it could control the amount of drugs its citizens consume.

At the same time, the Obama administration has proposed reductions in certain antidrug programs for next year in line with a long-planned shift toward training programs instead of expensive equipment like the helicopters used to fight trafficking.

Small amounts of marijuana for personal use are legal in Mexico, but Mr. Calderón has done little to press for any discussions over legalization. Mr. Biden said the subject did not come up in their meeting, which he called wide-ranging and which he said provided him an opportunity to pledge more American help to curtail money laundering and gun trafficking.

Other Latin American leaders, including the presidents of Costa Rica and Colombia, have suggested that legalization should at least be seriously discussed, but none have gone as far as the new president of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina.

In a country where drug trafficking and violence has exploded, he has said he would call for the legalization of drugs at a meeting with other Central America leaders.

Analysts suggest that Mr. Pérez Molina, a former army general, and other leaders may be angling for more antidrug aid and, in Mr. Pérez Molina’s case, for the United States to lift the suspension of military assistance that has been in place since the civil strife of the late 1970s.

“The growing discussion about legalization comes largely from the struggles on the ground with organized crime and violence,” said Shannon K. O’Neil, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who studies American relations in the region. “But in particular cases — that of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, for instance — it also likely reflects at least in part the desire to increase U.S. aid to his country, and to lift the ban on weapons sales instituted in the 1970s.”

The United States has warned of human rights violations by the Guatemalan military and the police there, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “For Pérez Molina, U.S. drug policy ends up making organized crime more powerful, and its human rights policy limits Guatemala’s ability to deal effectively with that threat,” he said. “That contradiction perhaps best accounts for Pérez Molina’s motivation.””


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