By Tim Johnson
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 United States 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, including Oregon, 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 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."