MADRID Guatemalan President Otto Perez said on Wednesday he is feeling less alone in his drive to re-think the fight against drug-trafficking than a year ago, when he shocked fellow Central American leaders with a proposal to decriminalise narcotics.
Guatemala, like its neighbour Mexico, is racked by violence from drug-trafficking cartels that ship South American cocaine to the United States. A Central American nation of 15 million people, Guatemala has one of the world's highest murder rates.
Most Latin American countries have long had zero-tolerance drug rules, largely encouraged by the United States, which for decades has poured money into its southern neighbours to eradicate crops of coca, the raw material for cocaine.
Perez, a former military officer who took office early last year, has been an outspoken voice saying that spiralling drug violence in Latin America is fed by billions of dollars from U.S. drug consumers and is a market force that cannot be stopped without a fresh approach.
Soon after taking office he broached the subject of decriminalising drugs with his closest neighbours, an idea immediately rejected by his counterparts in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
But a year later, he said there is more openness and a growing consensus to discuss change. A number of countries from Brazil to Mexico have relaxed penalties for small-time drug possession or are looking to do so. Uruguay's congress is debating a bill that would put the state in charge of regulating marijuana cultivation.
In October, Mexico's then-President Felipe Calderon and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos joined Perez in taking a landmark call to the United Nations asking for a global debate on an alternative to the current war on drugs.
While concrete action from the U.N. is still a remote possibility, Perez still sees signs of change.
"For the first time heads of state are openly talking about this. It used to be a taboo. Sitting presidents would not talk about it, only former leaders," Perez told Reuters in a brief interview in Madrid, where he is on an official visit to drum up interest from investors in his Central American country.
"We are seeing the first steps toward changing this trend and this paradigm," said Perez, 62.
A THIRD WAY
Latin America is the top world producer of cocaine and marijuana, feeding the huge demand in the United States and Europe. Domestic drug use has risen and drug gang violence has caused carnage for decades from the Mexican-U.S. border to the slums of Brazil.
Perez has proposed what he calls a "third way" in between all-out drugs legalisation and complete prohibition. He says the latter approach has failed as illegal drug use remains high despite decades of being outlawed around the world.
He has not said exactly how decriminalisation or a regulated market would work, but has called for a global discussion on looking at new approaches.
He has written that it would be a "discrete and more nuanced approach that may allow for legal access to drugs currently prohibited, but using institutional and market-based regulatory frameworks."
"At the beginning I felt very alone," Perez told Reuters.
"Fortunately as time passed I feel in better and better company. It takes time to change global trends but there is a trend shift in thinking toward regulation of drugs," he said.
Latin American leaders have said that a growing movement in the United States to decriminalise marijuana use has also dampened their enthusiasm for drug prohibition in their own countries.
November elections saw voters in Washington state and Colorado become the first U.S. states to approve measures to tax and regulate marijuana sales for recreational use.
Supporters of decriminalisation efforts in countries such as Argentina say that chasing small-time drug users clogs up court systems and uses up police resources.
They say decriminalisation would free up funds for treatment and prevention programs and for chasing big-time traffickers.
Some experts urge caution as different countries look at decriminalisation, saying the judicial system should still play a role in getting people with drug problems into treatment.
"We should have a global debate. We need to talk about the best way to deliver prevention and the role of the criminal justice system," said Kevin Sabet, a former senior advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama.
Sabet, who co-founded a group called Project SAM to battle the legalise marijuana movement in the United States, said countries that are pursuing changes in drug policy should focus on prevention and treatment without looking at full decriminalisation.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)