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Imagine a post-drug war world. After decades of brutal violence, huge costs and corrupting cartels, the Americas are trying to picture it. They produce and ship the bulk of the cocaine that enters the US, the world's top user. Now leaders are discussing alternatives to the war on drugs, such as decriminalizing or legally regulating parts of the drug trade. The taboo is broken. 'Legalize it' is gaining ground.

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In Latin America, 'critical mass' urges end to drug war

When leaders want to revise their drug laws, they go to Ethan Nadelmann for advice. GlobalPost interviewed him about the state of the 'legalize it' debate in the Americas.

Is this the first time we’re hearing 'legalize it' from Latin America?

This debate has been bungling around for many years. And over the years, more and more people have been exposed to the arguments regarding the failures of a prohibitionist drug-control policy and the potential benefits of an alternative.

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy — chaired by former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso [of Brazil], Cesar Gaviria [of Colombia] and Ernesto Zedillo [of Mexico] — released its report in early 2009 and that was really a breakthrough. These were three distinguished presidents all from the center, center-right of the political spectrum, joined by many other prominent ministers and intellectuals and publishers, saying we need to move in a new direction, we need to break the taboo, to understand the European harm-reduction approach better, to move in a direction of decriminalization of cannabis. That planted a lot of seeds in Latin America.

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That was followed up by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which issued its report in June of last year. It was not just presidents. They also had former Secretary of State George Shultz, [ex-chair of the Federal Reserve] Paul Volcker, Kofi Annan, [Virgin entrepreneur] Richard Branson and a whole range of distinguished people. That report went a step further. They talked about experiments in legal regulation of cannabis, a whole range of other innovative strategies. You had … distinguished folks legitimizing this thing.

Did you work on those reports?

I was an adviser to both.

How far has this debate come today?

For most of [the leaders involved], including Santos and Perez Molina, right now it’s more about sparking a discussion. It’s about saying ‘we spent the last 20, 30, 40 years experimenting with different drug war options — interdiction efforts, law enforcement strategies — and look at the mess we have today. We need to systematically look at the alternatives. We need to have government officials interacting with experts in public health, criminal justice and economics.’

There’s a growing consensus that the movement toward legal regulation of cannabis is perhaps inevitable and certainly the right thing to do. There’s also an emerging consensus that the personal possession of smaller amounts of any drug should be decriminalized. That’s important because [criminalizing possession] basically results in the arrest and incarceration of large numbers of people who are mostly poor and of darker skin.

It’s not that they’re saying legalize drugs tomorrow, it’s the provocative sort of statement that gets people paying attention, and realizing that we better start talking about this in earnest.