On the Latin American street, the Organization of American States has always borne a reputation, often undeserved, as Washington’s lackey. But the OAS, based in Washington, just sent the western hemisphere a message the White House would rather not hear: It’s time to seriously discuss legalizing marijuana as one means of reducing harrowing drug violence. That conclusion, from a study presented last Friday in Bogotá, Colombia, by OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza, is one that a growing number of Latin American governments — including Uruguay, which might legalize marijuana this year — are urging the Obama Administration to accept. Having the motion seconded by Washington’s “lackey” makes it harder to ignore.
But even as Insulza and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos were hailing the OAS report last week, something else was brewing in Bogotá that could further undermine resistance to pot legalization. The Colombian capital is about to start a program that uses marijuana to wean junkies off bazuco, a cheap but fiercely addictive cocaine paste. It will mark one of the largest experiments to determine if marijuana — which legalization opponents still insist is a “gateway” to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin — is in reality an “exit” drug. If so, it will only serve to reinforce the argument, mentioned by the OAS study, that marijuana is a relatively benign drug, far more comparable to alcohol than it is, say, to crystal meth.
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As Miami Herald South America correspondent Jim Wyss recently wrote from Bogotá, “For the most desperate [bazuco] users, the cannabis cure may be the only way out.” Or as one social worker told Wyss, “We want people to quit a substance that is very, very damaging and transition to something less dangerous and which will allow them to function in society.” Critics say the effort will just turn bazuco zombies into potheads. But for years now, similar projects in countries like Brazil, Jamaica and most recently Canada have indicated that marijuana is in fact an effective exit drug. In British Columbia last fall, a team of U.S. and Canadian addiction researchers determined that “clinical trials on cannabis substitution for problematic substance abuse appear justified.”
That doesn’t mean we should all start smoking herb like Harold and Kumar. The fact that a glass of hot bourbon can relieve common cold symptoms doesn’t mean we should all start drinking Manhattans, either. But affirming marijuana as an exit drug would lead us to reconsider one of modern society’s most glaring double standards: booze good, pot bad. It would reinforce the notion that moderate marijuana use is not more perilous than moderate alcohol consumption. According to studies, in fact, pot smoking in some cases can be a preferable alternative to drinking alcohol and smoking tobacco.
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So why do we waste so many resources (almost $10 billion each year in the U.S. alone) as well as lives hunting down marijuana users and sellers? The OAS’s $2 million report “The Drug Problem in the Americas” seems to ask the same thing. It is not an outright call for marijuana legalization. It is, as Insulza said in Bogotá, “the beginning of a long-awaited discussion” about “more realistic [drug war] policies.” Most Latin American leaders — whose countries suffer the bloody brunt of the largely failed U.S.-led drug war — already made it clear to President Obama at last year’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, that it’s high time to ask whether marijuana legalization might help reduce drug cartel revenues and therefore drug cartel mayhem. (Studies indicate it could rob Mexico’s narco-mafias of a third of the estimated $30 billion they rake in each year.)
Insulza acknowledged the current “disposition” throughout the Americas to “deal with the legalization issue,” and he called for “greater flexibility” on the part of nations like the U.S. The 400-page OAS study itself concludes that trends in the hemisphere “lean toward decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale and use of marijuana. Sooner or later, decisions in this area will need to be taken.” Santos, who is widely considered Washington’s closest ally in Latin America today, has not yet endorsed legalization, but he said the report should help drug-war battered countries like his “seek better solutions” than the conventional interdiction strategy Washington still pushes.
Former presidents of three of Latin America’s largest economies — Brazil, Mexico and Colombia — have jointly called for marijuana legalization. In the U.S., the states of Washington and Colorado last fall voted to legalize pot. Now that the OAS has joined that chorus, both the White House and the U.S. Congress need to join the discussion with more open ears.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Uruguay legalized marijuana last year. It is still debating the bill, which Uruguayan President José Mujica supports.