MEXICO CITY There is increasing evidence that the war on drugs has failed, with criminalization often creating more problems than it solves, said Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Program.
Speaking ahead of Thursday's presentation of the UNDP's 2013 Human Development Report, Clark, a former New Zealand prime minister, said Latin American leaders should be encouraged to develop different policies to tackle the drug scourge.
"I've been a health minister in my past and there's no doubt that the health position would be to treat the issue of drugs as primarily a health and social issue rather than a criminalized issue," Clark told Reuters in an interview.
"Once you criminalize, you put very big stakes around. Of course, our world has proceeded on the basis that criminalization is the approach," she added.
Clark did not prescribe remedies to the Latin American governments but said they should "act on evidence," noting that she favoured treating drugs as a public health problem.
In recent years, many Latin American governments have begun to openly challenge the 40-year orthodoxy of the U.S.-led "war on drugs" that seeks to stamp out the cultivation and distribution of drugs like marijuana and cocaine.
Clark declined to comment on the responsibilities the United States should shoulder in any new drug policy and advised Latin American governments against adopting an "us-and-them" stance when dealing with the United States and consumer countries.
UNDP spokeswoman Christina LoNigro later said in a statement that Clark had not criticized the U.S. policy on the so-called war on drugs.
"She was speaking about the negative effects the drug trade has had on development in some Latin American countries in the context of the Human Development Report," she added.
Frustrated by ceaseless bloodshed and a perception that the United States has not done enough to curb its own drug consumption, many leaders in the region are now speaking openly about the possibility of legalizing drugs.
In Mexico, more than 70,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since the start of 2007.
Supported by the United States, former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who left office in December, launched a military offensive on drug gangs soon after taking office in late 2006. Rather than quelling the violence, killings rose and Calderon gradually moved away from his hardline stance.
At the U.N. General Assembly in September, Calderon and the leaders of Colombia and Guatemala - traditionally three of the most reliable U.S. partners on drug control - called on world governments to explore new alternatives to the problem.
In Latin America and other regions, calls are growing for new thinking on how to combat the trade in illicit drugs and the resulting bloodshed, Clark noted.
They have said "that the approach being followed has failed so we need a fresh set of eyes on this as well. And I think the debate going on at the regional level is a very, very useful one," Clark said, referring to Latin America.
The latest UNDP report argues that growing prosperity in the traditionally poor global south is driving gains in human development there. As a result, it said, "stronger voices from the south are demanding more representative frameworks of international governance."
Among those demands are growing calls to redraw the battle lines of the "war on drugs."
"To deal with drugs as a one-dimensional, law-and-order issue is to miss the point," Clark said. She stopped short of calling for outright legalization, but said the focus should be on keeping illegal profits out of criminal hands.
"We have waves of violent crime sustained by drug trade, so we have to take the money out of drugs," she said.
One of the arguments for legalizing drugs is that it would take away a key source of revenue for traffickers.
"The countries in the region that have been ravaged by the armed violence associated with drug cartels are starting to think laterally about a broad range of approaches and they should be encouraged to do that," said Clark.
"They should act on evidence," she added.
(Editing by Dave Graham and Todd Eastham)