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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Long before he was in a position to change his country's policies, Barack Obama had firm views on a complex problem: "The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we're operating the drug war."
That was in January 2004, during a debate at Northwestern University, when he was running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. To make sure his student audience understood his position on the controversial issue, Obama added: "Currently, we are not doing a good job."
To look at a classic flip-flop, forward to April 2012 and a summit of Latin American leaders, several of whom have become vocal critics of the U.S.-driven war on drugs, in the Colombian city of Cartagena. More than three years into his presidency, Obama made clear that he is not in favor of legalizing drugs or of ending policies that treat drug users as criminals.
"I don't mind a debate around issues like decriminalization," he said at the Cartagena summit. "I personally don't agree that's a solution to the problem." Decriminalization means scrapping criminal penalties for the use of drugs. It falls short of legalization which, in its purest form, means the abolition of all forms of government control of drugs. Obama is against that, too. "I don't think that legalization of drugs is going to be the answer," he said.
So what is the answer? In his first year in office, Obama talked about placing more emphasis on curbing demand - the United States is the world's richest market for illicit drugs - and less on enforcing punitive laws that filled American prisons with drug offenders and helped turn the country into the world's chief jailer. It has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
But the rebalancing and the rethinking Obama mentioned before and after becoming president have been largely rhetorical. His administration has not put its money where its mouth is. Those who complain that the Obama administration is not doing enough to reduce demand can point to the proposed National Drug Control Budget for the 2013 fiscal year, which begins in October.
The allocation of funds is pretty much the same it was in the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton - roughly 40 percent for programs aimed at curbing demand and treating addicts and 60 percent for enforcing anti-drug laws, throttling the flow of drugs across the long border with Mexico and financing the eradication of drug crops in Latin America and Asia.
The 2013 budget proposal allocates 41.2 percent for demand reduction and 58.2 percent for law enforcement. In other words, more of the same -- policies that have been pursued since President Richard Nixon first declared war on drugs in 1970. Obama's 2004 assessment of those policies - "utter failure" - has come to be shared by many even though he no longer stands by it and even though members of his team such as Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano insist the old approach is working.
By some estimates, the war on drugs has so far cost close to a trillion dollars. What has that vast expenditure bought? Very little. According to the government's latest "Survey on Drug Use and Health," more than 22 million Americans - nearly 9 percent the U.S. population - used illegal drugs in 2010, up from 8 percent in 2008.
That demand and the vast profits derived from it, has prompted violence on a mind-boggling scale south of the U.S. border. In Mexico alone, around 50,000 people have died in the past six years as drug cartels fight each other - for access to supply lines to the U.S. market - and the Mexican state.
Drug-fueled violence is not restricted to Mexico. According to the United Nations, eight of the world's most violent countries are in Latin America. The small states of Central America, astride trafficking corridors to the north, are particularly vulnerable. Honduras now has the world's highest murder rate. Guatemala is not far behind.
Which explains why Guatemala's president, Otto Perez, has emerged as the most outspoken proponent of the need for new ways of tackling an old problem. Perez, a former army general, has impeccable credentials as a hard-line drug warrior. So has the host of the Cartagena summit, Colombian President Juan Manual Santos, a former defense minister.
Their views echo the arguments of a panel of high-profile establishment figures who published a devastating critique of the drug war last June. It made headlines the world over but apparently failed to convince the Obama administration. "Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply and consumption," said the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
"Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers," the report added. "The ... global scale of illegal drug markets - largely controlled by organized crime - has grown dramatically." That report was put together by former government leaders, including three former Latin American presidents and a former U.N. secretary-general.
Several prominent advocates of drug policy reforms in the United States and elsewhere see the fact that calls for change now come from sitting (rather than former) presidents as a sign that the end of the drug war as we knew it is in sight. Perhaps. But optimistic drug reformers might do well to remember that there is an entrenched international anti-drug establishment that provides employment for thousands of people, from narcotics agents and intelligence analysts to prison wardens. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration alone has 10,000 employees and offices in 63 countries.
That establishment has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. As with other conflicts, the war on drugs was easier to start than to end.
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Editing by Jonathan Oatis