The real headline in The New York Times was more measured: "U.S. Remains Opposed to Drug Legalization, Biden Tells Region." But the story, juxtaposing Washington's intransigence with the desperation of Latin American leaders sucked into a war with the drug cartels they aren't winning, was a sobering reminder of the parochialism of U.S. drug policy and its impact on other countries.
Vice President Joe Biden, who did manage to couch his brush-off of Latin American concerns in diplomatic language, is certainly right that legalization would be no panacea. What no U.S. politician seems willing to acknowledge, though, is that supply-side fixes to drug abuse have been disastrous to the economies and civil societies of supplying countries because they make the illicit drug business irresistibly profitable. The big question is not whether, but when, Latin Americans will have the temerity to challenge the United States' malign neglect.
A brief detour for some basic economics. If the sole goal of drug policy is to reduce consumption, one can get from here to there either by restricting supply or by convincing users to forego the experience. Both approaches can, in theory, get the job done -- to a point. But there is one (well, more than one, but let's keep this simple) big difference between them: Restricting supply raises prices, while reducing demand lowers prices.
Now, suppression of supply -- which, by treaty, the United States and most other countries strive for -- need not raise the profitability of producing and selling drugs, provided the restrictions also substantially raise the drug dealer's expenses. For example, the imposition of the death penalty for drug trafficking in a country with an efficient, honest police force (like Singapore) might be expected to raise the expected "cost" of trafficking so much that few people would consider it profitable.
But this apparently isn't the case in the United States, the globe's premier consuming country for most drugs (hard and soft) -- or for the major producing and entrepôt countries that supply the United States, Asia and Europe. Indeed, the illicit drug trade is so profitable in these places that it has given organized crime the power to undermine civil society in supplying countries.
Colombia, of course, was once the poster country for the collateral damage caused by the effort to suppress drugs. Having fed organized crime and related political terrorism there for decades, the production of cocaine was finally brought under control by a U.S.-supported military effort that cost thousands of lives and did significant harm to Colombia's legal economy that will take years to overcome. But wars on drug suppliers aren't won - they just move around.