* OAS suggests countries consider debate legalizing
* Report hopes to open debate on tactics in drug war
By Eduardo Garcia
BOGOTA, May 17 The Organization of American
States on Friday published a report calling for
decriminalization of drug use and for greater coordination
between nations in tackling the scourge.
"The report presented by the OAS today is a vital piece in
the construction of a common way to fight this problem,"
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said during the
presentation of the 200-page report in Bogota.
Almost all the cocaine consumed in Western countries is
produced in Latin America, while violence linked to the drug
trade kills thousands every year as smugglers fight for control
of trafficking routes in Central America, Colombia and Mexico.
Drug consumption is ticking up in nations such as Argentina
and Brazil. According to the OAS, about 45 percent of cocaine
consumers, 50 percent of heroine users and 25 percent of
marijuana smokers live in North and South America.
The report for the OAS, which includes all 35 North and
South American nations, aims to start a debate among American
nations regarding anti-drug policies. It also advocates for
softer policies toward drug users.
"The decriminalization of drug consumption must be
considered the base of any public health strategies," the report
says. "An addict is not a person with a chronic disease that
should be punished for his addiction."
The report echoes comments by Helen Clark, the head of the
U.N. Development Program, who in March said she favored Latin
American governments treating drugs as a public health
It also calls for "a substantial reduction in penalties" to
drug addicts and urges countries in the region to opt for
rehabilitation programs instead. It suggests that countries in
the region should consider the option of legalizing or
decriminalizing marijuana consumption.
"Our report, however, did not find any significant support,
in any of the countries, toward the decriminalization or
legalization of any other illegal drug," the OAS said.
The United States has sent billions of dollars to Colombia
to combat the cocaine trade but still there is limited
coordinated effort between countries in fighting drug
trafficking and usage. That prompted several member presidents
to ask the OAS to analyze the region's anti-drug policies in
order to make them more effective.
The Open Society Foundations, a human-rights and
pro-democracy group, celebrated the report as a "game changing"
document that likely will broaden the debate on drug policy
"This is the beginning of an international conversation on a
new approach to drugs," said David Holiday, the group's senior
regional advocacy officer. "We can hope this will move policies
from those currently based in repression to strategies rooted in
public health and human rights."
Many in Latin America feel a new approach is needed to the
drug war - and a shift away from hard-line policies - after
decades of violence in producer and trafficking nations such as
Colombia, Peru and Mexico.
Some regional leaders are pressuring the United States for
an overhaul of anti-drug policies. Presidents including Santos
have suggested they might be open to legalization of some
narcotics if that helped reduce violence.
(Reporting by Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Bill Trott)