Juan Manuel Santos stresses vital role of Britain, America and the EU to 'take away violent profit of traffickers'
Jamie Doward · 12/11/2011 · guardian.co.uk
Colombia's president has called for governments around the world, including the UK, to debate legalising certain drugs – even cocaine.
Juan Manuel Santos's call for an international rethink on drugs represents a significant raising of the ante in the debate on the merits of prohibition. He is the highest-profile incumbent politician to openly question whether there needs to be a comprehensive overhaul of global drugs laws.
In an interview in the Observer, Santos calls for a new approach to "take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking... If that means legalising, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it. I'm not against it."
He stressed that the initiative would work only if it was co-ordinated internationally and emphasised the vital role that the UK, the US and the European Union would have to play in shaping the debate. "What I won't do is become the vanguard of that movement because then I will be crucified," he says. "But I would gladly participate in those discussions because we are the country that's still suffering most and have suffered most historically with the high consumption of the UK, the US and Europe in general."
Significantly, Santos signalled he was prepared to go much further than many others advocating the reform of global drug laws by opening up a debate about legalising marijuana and even cocaine: "I would talk about legalising marijuana, and more than just marijuana." He highlighted the contradictory problems that would come with legalising certain drugs in particular jurisdictions.
"I ask myself how would you explain marijuana being legalised in California [for medicinal purposes] and cocaine consumption being penalised in Idaho? It's a contradiction. So it's a difficult problem where you set the limits.
"For example, I would never legalise very hard drugs like morphine or heroin because they are suicidal drugs. I might consider legalising cocaine if there is a world consensus, because it has affected us most here in Colombia. I don't know what is more harmful, cocaine or marijuana. That's a health discussion. But again, only if there is a consensus."
Danny Kushlick, head of external affairs at Transform, the thinktank that advocates drugs policy reform, welcomed Santos's comments. "President Santos has shown visionary leadership, and deserves our utmost respect for consistently calling for an examination of legal regulation of drugs as a viable policy option," he said. "The ongoing tragedies in Mexico and Colombia, and the billions wasted by the US and UK, are not caused by the demand for drugs, but by the absence of regulation and control of one of the largest commodity trades on Earth."
Santos was at pains to make British consumers understand the consequences of their cocaine use "besides the blood that every sniff of cocaine produces". He said: "It's creating havoc to the environment. Cocaine is probably the worst enemy of tropical forest. Much of the deforestation that you see in Colombia, in Peru, in Brazil is because of cocaine production, coca production. So not only the blood that it creates, the violence it creates, it's destroying the world."
Santos's comments come before a high-profile Drugs Policy Reform event this week at the House of Lords.
The joint initiative between the All Party Group on Drugs, chaired by Baroness Meacher, and the Beckley Foundation, which advocates reform of drugs laws, will issue an open letter signed by leading international politicians, campaigners, economists and musicians calling for a new approach to tackling the issue.Among the signatories to the letter are former presidents of Columbia and Brazil, six Nobel Prize winners, the ex-UK Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, former US Secretary of State, George Schulz, Sting, Richard Branson and Yoko Ono.
The event will explore whether reforms of drug laws in countries such as Portugal could offer a credible model for the UK and other nations. It will also hear independent evidence that the legalisation – and taxation –of cannabis in the UK would bring in hundreds of millions of pounds to the exchequer.
Amanda Feilding, of the Beckley foundation, said: "Improving our drugs policy is one of the key policy challenges of our time. It is time for a new approach. The war on drugs has failed. We need to break the taboo on debate."