Three Strikes Against the Drug War

MEXICO CITY – The last two months have witnessed more far-reaching changes on the drug-policy scene in Latin America and the United States than in all previous decades combined. Three fundamental shifts have occurred, each of which would be important on its own; taken together, they may be a game-changer that finally ends the hemisphere’s failed war on drugs.

First and foremost were the referenda on marijuana legalization in the US states of Colorado and Washington on November 6. For the first time, voters in the country that is the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs in general, and marijuana in particular, approved propositions legalizing possession, production, and distribution of cannabis – and by relatively broad margins.

While a similar initiative failed in Oregon, and Proposition 19 (which called for limited legalization of cannabis) was defeated in California in 2010 (by seven percentage points), the outcome in Colorado and Washington sent a powerful message to the rest of the US. The results have not only created a conflict between US federal law and state legislation, but also signal a shift in attitudes not dissimilar to that concerning same-sex marriage.

Just as important, however, was President Barack Obama’s reaction to the Colorado and Washington votes – both states that he won easily in his re-election bid. The legal and political challenges implied are no minor matter: marijuana remains an illicit substance under US federal law and international conventions that America has adopted. On other issues – notably immigration – Obama rejects claims of states’ rights and insists on federal authority. Moreover, the topic remains highly sensitive: while public-opinion polls in 2012 indicate for the first time a small majority in favor of legalization, opponents remain vehement.

Nonetheless, in an interview on December 14, Obama made three path-breaking statements. First, he said that enforcing federal marijuana legislation in Colorado and Washington was not a priority of his administration; he had “other fish to fry.” Second, he reiterated his own opposition to legalization, but then added: “at this point.” For the first time, a sitting US president hinted at a possible, perhaps even likely, change of future policy. Finally, Obama advocated holding a “national conversation” on the question of state versus federal legislation on such issues. The importance of these statements cannot be overestimated.

The third change in recent months occurred in one of the world’s largest drug-supplying countries: Mexico, through which practically all of the illegal drugs shipped to the US – cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines – must pass. On December 1, Enrique Peña Nieto succeeded Felipe Calderón as President. As happens almost everywhere, the transition became a moment to scrutinize the outgoing government’s policies, even if the new administration does not intend to modify those policies in the short term. Fortunately for Mexico, history seems to be judging Calderón’s “war on drugs” severely.

Indeed, The Washington Post reported in late November that internal government documents, made available to its Mexico City correspondent, showed that more than 25,000 people disappeared during Calderón’s six-year term, in addition to the roughly 60,000 deaths directly linked to the drug war. The advocacy group Human Rights Watch wrote a public letter to the new president, asking what he intends to do about the thousands of missing Mexicans. Then, in a series of leaks and explicit statements, the new government pointed out the previous policies’ high legal, bureaucratic, and financial costs, and that many more crimes of all types were committed, despite sharply higher spending on law enforcement and security.

In short, the most recent emblem of the traditional, internationally imposed drug-enforcement approach, based on punitive and prohibitionist policies, is turning out to be a catastrophic failure, costing Mexico dearly while producing no results for the country, the rest of Latin America, or the US. Consequently, the main advocates of this approach (Calderón, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the current and former presidents of Brazil, and America’s conservatives and security establishment) are losing public support. Proponents of a different strategy (Presidents Juan Manuel Santos and Otto Peréz Molina of Colombia and Guatemala, respectively, among others), based on public-health premises and legalization, are gaining ground.

Uruguay is expected to approve legislation fully legalizing marijuana in January; the Organization of American States is scheduled to deliver a report to the region’s heads of state at mid-year on alternative drug-enforcement strategies and existing “best practices” in other countries. And more US states will most likely either approve full-fledged marijuana legalization or its medicinal use (18 states already allow it).

A sea change in drug policy seems to be in the making. It will not occur overnight, or everywhere, or in regard to all drugs. But, after decades of bloodshed, repression, and criminalization, things have begun to move in the right direction. It’s a pity it took so long.

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, 2012.

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