03/29/2012 03:51 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2012

The Central American Presidents Legalization Meeting? A Big Fat Nothingburger

Last week, pro-legalization blogs were smitten with Guatemalan President Oscar Pérez Molina's conference promoting their cause. Indeed, according to Ethan Nadelmann -- the godfather of the legalization movement -- Molina was holding a "remarkable" meeting with other Heads of State "demanding... all options, including decriminalization and legalization."

This was going to be their big moment. A bunch of presidents talking about the wisdom of legalization. A global media blitz. And justification to George Soros and other big financiers that their money was being well spent.

How did it go, you ask?

Well, they'd rather not get into details, really. In fact Nadelmann's comments after the event were a real bummer for the pro-legalization crowd: "What was discussed at the meeting is nowhere near as important as the agenda," he tweeted. So what was said and (not) done was apparently less important than what was supposed to be said and done.

Indeed, what was supposed to be a turning point turned out to be a big turnoff for the public and regional Heads of State, most of whom didn't show up. In fact, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli were the only leaders to join Molina at the meeting, with other countries either sending lower level officials or not coming at all. At the end of the meeting, the true reason for all this ruckus became painfully apparent: stopping short of demanding legalization, Molina specifically asked the U.S. for more aid in the form of a 50 percent tariff on all drug seizures. It was a desperate cry for help in a desperate region.

To those of us working on these issues, it is hardly surprising that the simplistic solution of legalization hasn't taken off the way President Molina wished it would. The public knows better -- in Guatemala alone, polls show that 70 percent oppose such efforts. They know that legalization would not only not eliminate underground drug markets, it would in fact encourage them to thrive because of the expected increase in demand (not surprising when we look at other issues -- when gambling became legal, the underground market for it grew stronger). They know that deep-rooted institutional issues of poverty, social exclusion, and other social ills -- inextricably linked to drug production -- would not be touched if drugs were legal. They know that international cooperation -- not isolation, as legalization in that region would undoubtedly bring -- for countries on the brink. And they also know that the last thing they need is more drugs on their own streets, addicting their own population.

So it was not surprising that at the annual global meeting of drug policy at the U.N. in mid-March, the issue of legalization was completely ignored. Of course, that doesn't mean there wasn't a recognition that current policy needs improvement. Emphasizing treatment, especially gender-based approaches (e.g. family based treatment which keeps families together during a parent's road to recovery), supporting innovations in the criminal justice system (like drug courts and other alternatives like testing and sanctions programs), recommending opiate overdose prevention techniques, learning from the remarkable progress in Colombia (which, according to the U.N. World Drug Report, has slashed cocaine use in North America), and promoting better international cooperation in supply reduction activities were just some of the topics governments tackled at the meeting. No, none of them are as sexy or as simple as legalization. They don't fit easily on a bumper sticker. And they probably won't get much attention in the media. But they represent what really needs to get done.

At a meeting I attended with Latin American and West African anti-drug officials in Tampa this week, it became clear that these countries are pleading with the international community for cooperation and real solutions. Their governments are becoming corrupted, their already fragile institutions are eroding, and their people are being either killed or used as pawns in this global, multibillion dollar business. Not only is legalization a nonstarter for them, it is insulting to them that we think their problems could be solved by such a policy. And then there's the inevitable role U.S. demand for drugs plays in this complicated puzzle. At the end of my presentation on U.S. drug trends, delegates scratched their heads when shown pictures of our precious medical marijuana storefronts.

"Made in America!" they said.

I struggled to find words.