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Biden faced with legalization question on Latin America trip

The Americas Post - Biden would prefer to avoid the subject of drug legalization on his Latin trip

Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday began a tour of Latin America under intense pressure from business and political leaders to speak on a topic that no U.S. official wants to address: the decriminalization of drugs.

The presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Mexico, suffering the consequences of a failing drug war, said in recent weeks that they would like to begin talks on legalizing drugs. Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Mexico already allow the use of small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption, while the governments of Brazil and Colombia discussed alternatives to incarceration for drug users.

Business leaders have also taken up the cause.  In February, a conference of bankers, doctors and legal experts in Mexico concluded that current drug control policies do not work and should be reformed.

“It’s a different time when heads of state speak of the need to discuss the issue in depth,” said John Walsh, specialist in drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, an independent research center. “A few years ago it would have seemed impossible.”

Dan Restrepo, top White House official for Latin American affairs,  said the vice president hopes to maintain a “substantial discussion” on security issues in Latin America, including the battles drug cartels are waging for control of the lucrative U.S. market. But he warned that American leaders should not expect a change in policy from the White House.

“The Obama administration has been clear in our opposition to the legalization or decriminalization of illicit drugs,” said Restrepo.

Biden will arrived in Mexico City on Sunday to discuss economic and security issues with President Felipe Calderon. On Monday he meets with three candidates for the Mexican presidency, who hope to take over from Calderón.

On Tuesday, Biden travels to Honduras to meet with President Porfirio Lobo, along with the presidents of El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala, whose countries face the consequences of drug trafficking.  Drug cartels there have killed tens of thousands of people, have crowded prisons, promoted corruption, influenced elections, undermined democracy and threatened their fragile economies.

“I do think that the issue of legalization is being raised by the leaders to Biden, but privately,” said Walter McKay, policy specialist for security issues in Mexico.  Over 47,500 people have been killed there since 2006 in drug-related violence.