MEXICO CITY – Latin America and the United States have experienced what one could call a series of “marijuana moments” over the past few weeks. Given growing support for ending the senseless and bloody decades-long “war on drugs,” these signs of progress toward decriminalization and legalization should not pass unremarked.
The first moment took place during the Organization of American States’ annual General Assembly, held this year in Antigua, Guatemala, at the beginning of June. The OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, presented a report entitled “The Drug Problem in the Americas,” which had been requested by the region’s heads of state when they met at last year’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.
The report was drawn up by experts from almost all OAS member states, and was divided into two parts: an excellent analytical section, and a brief and somewhat exasperating chapter devoted to future scenarios. The document itself represents a watershed, because it provides the data needed for a scientific and empirical discussion of an issue that is too often debated in ideological terms.
The report breaks down the issue in a compelling way: by countries (producers, transit states, consumers, or all of these); by substances (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and synthetic drugs); by links among these illicit substances; and by the consequences of consumption, production, or trade of each drug for societies, institutions, and international relations. The report also states explicitly that decriminalization of marijuana consumption is a legitimate, reasonable, and feasible option, though it does not recommend such a policy. This is only an initial step, but it is an enormous one.
The second “marijuana moment” occurred in the US, where the states of Washington and Colorado have entered the final stages of fully legalizing marijuana usage, following popular referenda last November. Both states have just concluded the drafting and publication of the rules and regulations that will translate their referendum results into law: how to forbid consumption by minors; how to punish consumers driving under the influence; what kind of taxes and tax rates are most appropriate; and how non-residents will be treated, among other complicated and controversial issues. As legal pioneers in the US, both states will have to proceed by trial and error.
But perhaps the most interesting and intriguing facet of this process is President Barack Obama’s eloquent indifference to the entire affair. So far, at least, he has refused to intercede in the discussion of whether federal law should trump state legislation, having said that he has “bigger fish to fry.”
The third “marijuana moment” stems from recent decisions in New York and Illinois – the third and fifth most populous US states, respectively – to proceed with legalizing medical marijuana. In May, the Illinois legislature passed a highly restrictive bill governing marijuana use for therapeutic purposes, which the governor has not yet decided whether to sign. Soon after, the New York State Assembly passed a strict bill on medical marijuana, which the State Senate has yet to vote on. If New York and Illinois move forward, they will become the 19th and 20th of the 50 US states that, together with the District of Columbia, permit medical use of marijuana.
Finally, earlier this month, the US-based international NGO Human Rights Watch formally adopted a stance that rejects criminalization of possession and consumption of all drugs and calls for a radically different approach. Most important, HRW did so from a human-rights perspective, and its statement is worth quoting:
“Subjecting people to criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs, or for possession of drugs for personal use, infringes on their autonomy and right to privacy. The right to privacy is broadly recognized under international law, including in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. Limitations on autonomy and privacy cannot be justified unless they meet the criteria for any restriction of a basic right, namely legitimate purpose, proportionality, necessity, and non-discrimination. While protecting health is a legitimate government purpose, criminalizing drug use to protect people from harming themselves does not meet the criteria of necessity or proportionality.”
None of these recent developments will lead, on its own, to decriminalization. International conventions still limit governments’ leeway, and the US government remains opposed to any backtracking from the punitive, prohibitionist strategy that it has pursued since 1981. Even the boldest Latin American governments – including those in Colombia, Uruguay, and Guatemala – are reluctant to advance much further, especially if they remain isolated.
And presidents like Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner are sticking to their orthodox, conservative, and anachronistic stances, unwilling to budge until public opinion leaves them no other choice. Yet something is stirring in the hemisphere; as its “marijuana moments” arrive with greater frequency, can a milestone be far off?
Jorge G. Castañeda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico (2000-2003), is Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.