Vice President Biden Gives Flimsy Defense of Drug Prohibition in Response to Growing Calls from Latin American Presidents for Legalization Debate

Press Release March 5, 2012
Media Contact

Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Ethan Nadelmann 646-335-2240</p>

Vice President Joe Biden, on a two-day visit to Mexico and Central America, said that while the legalization debate is worth discussing, there is no possibility that the Obama Administration will change its policy. Biden’s statements come amid rapidly escalating demands by Latin American presidents that legalization be included among the options for reducing prohibition-related violence, crime and mayhem.

Mr. Biden meets today with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and other Central American leaders.  The Guatemalan president has said that the legalization debate will be on their agenda.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance issued the following statement:

Vice President Biden’s comment that “there is no possibility that the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization” should come as no surprise.  That comment is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy, and it’s hard to imagine the administration wanting this debate to open up in an election year.

But, that said, Biden’s comments on the issue are noteworthy in three respects:

First, the Vice President did acknowledge that "it is totally legitimate for this to be raised” and “it’s worth discussing.”  That’s more than he has previously conceded on the issue.  It’s consistent with President Obama’s comment on January 27, 2011 – that legalization is “an entirely legitimate topic for debate.”  And it sends a message to the drug czar and other federal officials who to date have rejected any such discussion out of hand that it’s now OK to at least talk about it, and perhaps engage the growing debate.

Second, what’s most striking about Biden’s comments on the subject is the flimsiness of his arguments.  To focus, as he reportedly did, on the need, with legalization, to create “a costly bureaucracy to regulate the drugs and new addicts” while downplaying the fact that any such bureaucracy would cost a small fraction of what it currently costs instead to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate millions of people for drug law violations, seems absurd.  “The debate,” he said, “always occurs, understandably, in the context of serious violence that occurs with the society, particularly in societies that don't have the institutional framework and the structure to deal with organized, illicit operations."  But it’s worth pointing out that the debate over legalization has been most vigorous with respect to marijuana, and in countries like The Netherlands, which don’t jibe with the context Biden says is central.  The shallowness of the Vice President’s comments reflects the fact that this administration, like its predecessors, has not yet bothered to even think seriously about alternatives to current policies.

And third, Biden’s public comments rejecting legalization, combined with whatever private pressures are applied by him and other U.S. officials to shut down the burgeoning debate, will almost certainly not end the discussion.  Not when the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include George Shultz, Paul Volcker, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ernesto Zedillo, Cesar Gaviria, Javier Solana and others of comparable distinction, has made an impressive case both for reforming drug control policies and “breaking the taboo” on public debate.  Not when Presidents Felipe Calderon, Juan Manuel Santos, Otto Perez Molina, Laura Chinchilla and others have each joined their call in various ways.  Not when prominent business and other civic leaders increasingly are doing so as well.  And not so long as the punitive, prohibitionist policies promoted by the U.S. government continue to wreak such great havoc in so many parts of the world.

Colombia’s President Santos, who was the first president to speak publicly, beginning in late 2011, in support of legalization, reportedly had been looking for other presidents to join him in stepping out.  He’s now found just the sort of ally he needs in Guatemala’s new president, Otto Perez Molina.  It’s long been said that a “Nixon goes to China” scenario is the best option for really opening up the debate about alternatives to failed prohibitionist policies.  Otto Perez Molina is a political conservative and a former general who played a pivotal role two decades ago in securing the military’s agreement to the peace agreement that ended the country’s long civil war.  He’s just started his four year term, and is moving forward strategically to ensure that this crucial debate is not foreclosed.  This issue will be on the agenda at the annual Summit of the Americas  in Cartagena in April, and in national, regional and international gatherings thereafter.

Whoever is in the White House for the next four years is going to need to step up their game in this debate.  Because now it’s not going away.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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