Leaders at a summit meeting of many of the Western Hemisphere nations on Saturday discussed alternatives to what many consider a failed “war on drugs” that is too reliant on military action and imprisonment. But President Obama said flatly that “legalization is not the answer.”
The issue was placed on the agenda of the Summit of the Americas this weekend by the host, Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos. Even so, Mr. Santos suggested that he had in mind some unspecified middle ground short of fully decriminalizing the drug trade that for years has undermined societies throughout the region, notably in Colombia.
“We have the obligation to see if we’re doing the best that we can do, or are there other alternatives that can be much more efficient?” Mr. Santos said during an informal panel discussion with Mr. Obama and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil just before the summit meeting began. “One side can be all the consumers go to jail. On the other extreme is legalization. On the middle ground, we may have more practical policies.”
In his turn, Mr. Obama said, “I think it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are ones that are doing more harm than good in certain places.”
But, he added, “I personally, and my administration’s position, is that legalization is not the answer.” Drug operations could come to “dominate certain countries if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint,” he said, and “could be just as corrupting if not more corrupting then the status quo.”
The prominence of the drug-enforcement issue at the meeting, which drew more than 30 leaders from North, Central and South America and Caribbean nations, in part reflected a positive development: the increased prosperity in Latin America in recent years has made economic issues less of a problem, and at the same time has emboldened Latin American leaders to take a bigger role in setting the agenda when they meet.
Mr. Santos, in opening the meeting on Saturday afternoon, said the leaders should stop stalling in re-examining the region’s approach to the war on drugs, which he dated more than four decades back to President Richard Nixon in 1971. President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala has called for full legalization of narcotics, though no specific proposals are on the table here.
“Despite all of the efforts, the immense efforts, the huge costs, we have to recognize that the illicit drug business is prospering,” Mr. Santos told the leaders. “This summit is not going to resolve this issue,” he added. “But it can be a starting point to begin a discussion that we have been postponing for far too long.”
Mr. Obama, in his remarks at the formal session, before reporters were ushered out, said: “I know there are frustrations and that some call for legalization. For the sake of the health and safety of our citizens — all our citizens — the United States will not be going in this direction.”
Earlier, on the informal panel before an audience of corporate executives and members of the nations’ official delegations, Mr. Obama had drawn applause when he said of narcotics trafficking, “We can’t look at the issue of supply in Latin America without also looking at the issue of demand in the United States.”
Latin Americans have long complained that the United States criticizes its neighbors’ antidrug efforts when it is American users and guns that stoke the drug trade and violence.
At the formal meeting, Mr. Obama said: “As I’ve said many times, the United States accepts our share of responsibility for drug violence. That’s why we’ve dedicated major resources to reducing the southbound flow of money and guns to the region. It’s why we’ve devoted tens of billions of dollars in the United States to reduce the demand for drugs. And I promise you today — we’re not going to relent in our efforts.”
Absent from the meeting was Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, who is battling cancer; officials said he stayed away on his doctors’ advice. The absence of Mr. Chávez, a fierce critic of the United States, eliminated the potential for a tense meeting with Mr. Obama. After the previous Summit of the Americas in 2009, when the two presidents were photographed shaking hands, Mr. Obama was criticized by some Republicans.
Separately, in an interview with Univision, Mr. Obama strongly reiterated a promise to seek an overhaul of immigration policy in a second term. But Mr. Obama, who also pledged in 2008 to seek a new law, said he needed more support in Congress, where Republicans have led the opposition.
“This is something I care deeply about,” he said. “It’s personal to me.”