Legalization of drugs — long an issue championed mainly by fringe groups — is rapidly moving to the mainstream in Latin America.
Last week's surprise statement by former Mexican President Vicente Fox in support of "legalizing production, sales and distribution" of drugs made big headlines around the world.
Fox, a former close U.S. ally who belongs to the same center-right political party as President Felipe Calderon, rocked the boat at home by indirectly criticizing the very premise of Calderon's all-out military offensive against Mexico's drug cartels, which has cost 28,000 lives since 2006.
Calderon immediately responded that he opposes legalization of drugs, although he has opened a dialogue with political parties about the future of his country's anti-drug policies. The left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution announced that it supports "de facto legalization" of drugs.
Fox's statement, first published Saturday in his blog, went far beyond a 2009 joint declaration by former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia. In that statement, the three former leaders questioned the effectiveness of the U.S. war on drugs and proposed de-criminalizing possession of marijuana for personal use.
While the three centrist former presidents' proposal amounted to not prosecuting people for consuming marijuana, Fox's proposal calls for legalization of all major drugs -- the whole enchilada.
In an extended interview, Fox told me that he is making his proposal because drug-related violence in Mexico has reached intolerable levels, and because the experience of other countries such as the Netherlands has shown that allowing drug sales has not significantly driven up drug consumption.
"Prohibitionist policies have hardly worked anywhere," Fox told me. "Prohibition of alcohol in the United States [in the 1920's] never worked, and it only helped trigger violence and crime."
Since possession of small amounts of marijuana has already been decriminalized in Mexico, what's needed now are bolder steps, such as legalizing drug production and using the taxes it generates to fund anti-drug education programs, he said.
"What I'm proposing is that, instead of allowing this business to continue being run by criminals, by cartels, that it be run by law-abiding business people who are registered with the Finance Ministry, pay taxes and create jobs," Fox said.
Fox called for a reversal of Calderón's decision to send the army into the streets to fight the drug cartels because "the army is not prepared to do police work, and we are seeing day to day how the army's image is losing ground in Mexico" as a result of this war.
Why didn't you come out with this proposal when you were president? I asked.
Fox responded that legalization was often discussed in Cabinet meetings during his presidency, but that the urgency of such a measure has increased since "because of the extraordinary cost we are paying in a drop in tourism, a drop in investments and a lack of attention to education and health."
In a separate interview, White House drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske told me that drug legalization is a "non-starter" in the Obama administration.
Kerlikowske disputed the idea that alcohol prohibition drove up crime in the United States in the 1920s, arguing that there were no reliable crime statistics at the time.
And he rejected the notion that there has been no major increase in drug consumption in the Netherlands.
"In the Netherlands, consumption did go up. In fact, the Netherlands has been in the process of closing down hundreds of the marijuana cafes that had been in existence because of the problems that are occurring," he said.
My opinion: I'm not convinced that a blanket legalization of drugs would work because government regulation of the cocaine and heroin businesses in countries that already have high corruption rates would result in greater official corruption.
On the other hand, it's clear that after four years of Calderón's U.S.-backed war on drugs, the cartels are smuggling more drugs, killing more people and becoming richer.
Perhaps the time has come to take a step-by-step approach and start a serious debate about passing laws that would regulate legal production of marijuana, alongside massive education campaigns to discourage people from using it.
Then, we could see who is right and consider what to do next.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at firstname.lastname@example.org. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.