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Originally published May 17, 2013 at 9:43 AM | Page modified May 17, 2013 at 4:58 PM

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OAS drug study eyes marijuana legalization

An Organization of American States study released Friday is calling for a serious discussion on legalizing marijuana.

Associated Press

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LIMA, Peru —

An Organization of American States study released Friday is calling for a serious discussion on legalizing marijuana.

Drug policy reform advocates called the report historic, though it made no specific proposals and said there was "no significant support" among the OAS' 35 member states for legalizing cocaine, the illicit drug with the greatest impact on Latin America.

"This is the first time any multilateral organization anywhere has done something like this," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

The $2.2 million study was commissioned in response to calls by some Latin American leaders at last year's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, for a rethinking of the war on drugs. Reform advocates call the more than $20 billion that Washington has spent on counterdrug efforts in Latin America over the past decade a damaging waste of taxpayer money.

The report says "greater flexibility" in dealing with the drug problem "could lead to the possibility of amending domestic legislation or promoting changes to international law."

It urges "assessing existing signals and trends that lean toward the decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale and use of marijuana. Sooner or later decisions in this area will need to be taken."

The study, which was presented by outgoing OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza in Bogota, examines four different scenarios for confronting the illicit drug trade, which has fueled violent crime and corruption, especially in drug production and transit countries, including destabilizing governments.

The most controversial scenario would involve countries unilaterally abandoning the fight against drug production and trafficking in their territory in order to reduce violence.

President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, a hard-hit cocaine transit country along with neighboring Honduras, made headlines before the Cartagena summit when he said he was tempted to put his country on such a path.

The report's authors conclude, however, "that there is no absolute link between the drug problem and the insecurity experienced by many citizens in the Americas."

Accompanying Insulza on Friday was Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose country remains the No. 1 source of cocaine consumed by U.S. citizens.

Santos said the report presented "simple, realistic options" for future action in order to "reduce the deaths, the violence that drug trafficking wreaks, the consumption of drugs and the profits of criminals."

The 400-page study emphasizes drug abuse as primarily a public health issue and suggests drug abusers should not be criminally prosecuted but rather treated as ill.

"Decriminalization of drug use needs to be considered as a core element in any public health strategy," it says.

That echoes the approach of the U.S. government. But it diverges from Washington's longstanding opposition to legalizing marijuana despite the fact that voters in two states - Colorado and Washington - have done that.

Nadelmann said the U.S. government has in the past suppressed any multilateral attempt to promote discussion of alternatives to the current drug war.

"The notion that the OAS would actually convene 50 people, including a number of my allies and people associated with reform, and then have this open-ended discussion and then produce a report that was not subject to intensive political review and censorship is actually extraordinary," he said from New York.

Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the White House's drug czar, said in response to the report that "any suggestion that nations legalize drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine runs counter to an evidenced-based, public health approach to drug policy and are not viable alternatives."

The report was released two weeks before Guatemala hosts the OAS General Assembly, where the subject of drugs tops the agenda.

Nadelmann said the report reflects to a large degree of interest in Latin America with voter-driven marijuana legalization in the United States.

Uruguay's president, Jose Mujica, is pushing marijuana legalization and wants to put the government in charge of sales.

Other findings of the study:

-Drug abuse is the 15th direct cause of death in the OAS' northern countries , 40th in Andean countries and 52nd in Central America. That supports arguments that the United States and Canada bear more responsibility for illicit drug demand.

- Retail sales of illicit drugs account for 65 percent of drug profits, while farmers or producers get 1 percent

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Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, and Luis Alonso in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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