Harper's drug stance may put him on the outs at Summit of the Americas
BY MARK KENNEDY, POSTMEDIA NEWS Published: Vancouver Sun
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Stephen Harper is flying to a weekend summit in Colombia where his hard line on drugs will put him at odds with some Latin American leaders who are calling for a debate over whether drug use should be decriminalized.
Harper's position on Cuba also could run afoul of a possible consensus by countries in central and South America.
Harper is attending the Summit of the Americas, a conference of leaders from 34 nations that is held every three years.
The talks this year will include such issues as trade expansion, and Harper will meet with senior business executives from Canada and elsewhere who are attending the summit to discuss investment in the Western Hemisphere.
As well, it's expected many Latin American leaders will argue the time has come, after decades of being barred from the summit, for Cuba to be invited to the next gathering.
That will run counter to the firm positions of Canada and the United States, which insist Cuba should not be permitted to attend the next summit until the communist regime initiates democratic reforms.
Meanwhile, another issue — illicit drugs — is top of mind for some leaders. The escalating violence connected to warring drug cartels in Latin America has some nations insisting it's time for a new approach: softer penalties for drug use or perhaps even a decriminalized system in which governments regulate how the drugs are sold.
To varying degrees, the leaders of Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico and Costa Rica have spoken out in favour of exploring approaches other than the criminal to the problem of illegal drug use.
But on Thursday, Harper's director of communications said Canada will argue strenuously against decriminalization of illegal drugs.
"The prime minister would be a strong voice in that debate," said Andrew MacDougall. "The government's strategy is, in fact, completely in the opposite direction.
"A key priority for us is to fight illicit drugs, particularly the transnational organizations that are behind the drug smuggling. Here at home, we have put in place tough new laws to crack down on these groups, to put drug dealers behind bars where they belong."
Critics of the so-called 'war on drugs' approach note that Latin American drug cartels have grown more powerful as violence spreads throughout the region — claiming more than 50,000 lives in Mexico alone — and that drug use has only increased in rich nations such as Canada and the United States.
Suddenly, some leaders are looking to this weekend's summit in Cartagena, Colombia as a perfect opportunity to begin debate on a question that was once taboo: Why not remove the profits of the cartels by making the drug trade a legal — but highly regulated — business?
That's not an option being welcomed either by the Harper government, or by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration.
The Obama administration says it is open to a debate on the issue — if only to "demystify" decriminalization as an option and show that such a move would backfire and make matters worse.
Among those speaking most bluntly for decriminalization is Guatemala's president Otto Perez Molina, who was the former head of his country's intelligence service.
In an opinion article that appeared earlier this week in the British newspaper the Guardian, he outlined the merits of ending prohibition.
"We all agree that drugs are bad for our health and that therefore we have to concentrate on impeding their consumption, just as we combat alcoholism and tobacco addiction," he wrote.
"However, nobody in the world has ever suggested eradicating sugarcane plantations, or potatoes and barley production, in spite of these being raw materials in the production of the likes of rum, beer and vodka. And we all know that alcoholism and tobacco addiction cause thousands of deaths every year all over the world."
Molina added that "mainstream global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that the global drug markets can be eradicated."
Guatemala is pushing for countries to drop "ideological" considerations and explore a "realistic approach."
"Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that drug consumption and production should be legalized, but within certain limits and conditions," he wrote.
Molina said a regulatory approach to recreational drug consumption would still face problems, such as how to "diminish" violence generated by drug abuse, strengthen public health systems to help drug addicts and prevent substance abuse — possibly by prohibiting drug sales to minors, banning mass media advertising, and slapping high taxes on drugs.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is hosting this weekend's summit, also hasn't been shy about speaking in favour of new options.
Earlier this month, he told the Washington Post the discussion on drug policy is "not rational" and he wants to see an "open" and "objective" debate.
"If we find that there is a better alternative that will take away the profits from the criminal organizations and that maybe you can address the problem of consumption in a more effective way, then everybody will win."