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Originally published Friday, May 17, 2013 at 5:03 PM

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International report sees merit in decriminalizing drug use

An Organization of American States report says decriminalization could be one of many “transitional methods” in a public-health strategy that could stem the illicit drug business.

Los Angeles Times

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The Organization of American States (OAS) said Friday that countries should consider decriminalizing drug use, a shift backed by several current and former Latin American leaders but opposed by the United States.

Decriminalization could be one of many “transitional methods” in a public-health strategy that could include “drug courts, substantive reduction in sentences and rehabilitation,” according to a report released by the OAS on the possible liberalization of drug policies.

The report, presented by OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza in Bogotá, was commissioned during the April 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, in response to many leaders’ complaints that U.S.-driven drug-prohibition policies of recent decades had failed to stem the illicit drug business.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he favored discussion of the decriminalization or legalization of drugs as a way to try to curb illicit drug use and trafficking.

Officials in countries known as drug-production and transit locations, such as Colombia and Guatemala, have said they were paying intolerable costs in violence and corruption, while consumer nations such as the U.S. and those in Europe were getting off relatively easy as the drugs keep flowing.

“All of us who hold public responsibilities owe it to the millions of women and men, young and old, mothers and fathers, girls and boys who today feel threatened, to find clear answers and effective public policies to confront this scourge,” Insulza said.

The proposal by three former Latin American leaders — Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and César Gaviria of Colombia — that drugs be decriminalized or legalized has had a ripple effect among Latin American opinion leaders, said Bruce Bagley of the University of Miami, an expert on drug trafficking and policy.

Some specialists said the OAS report could have urged more specific changes to government policies.

Mark Kleiman, a public-policy professor at UCLA, said policies should be retooled to focus on alleviating the violence and health damage caused by drug use, not on the flow of drugs.

“We’re in a completely unsustainable situation,” Kleiman said. “The strategy is not working.”

John Walsh of the Washington (D.C.) Office on Latin America, a think tank that supports decriminalization of drugs, said the OAS report was valuable in part because “it recognizes that one-size-fits-all responses won’t work for complex problems that affect countries differently.”

Other findings of the report:

• 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.

Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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