The decisive victories for marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado on November 6th transform the global drug policy debate
After declaring in 1971 “We must wage total war against public enemy number one in the United State, the problem of dangerous drugs”, President Richard Nixon prematurely claimed victory On September 11, 1973, “We turned the corner on drug addiction in the United states. Drug addiction is under control.” Almost 40 years later, we might indeed be turning a corner in the war on drugs, though not quite the corner envisioned by Nixon, as 2012 is poised to enter the history books as a turning point in the failed war on drugs, and will hopefully signal the beginning of its unfolding.
Discontent about the failed war on drugs policies has been brewing for quite a while, especially in Latin America, but outside of that region, the debate rarely reached much beyond academic and activist circles. Things changed in June 2011 when drug policy reform grabbed the headlines across the world for the very first time with the publication of the Global Commission on Drug Policy Report. The report was signed by an impressive slate of prestigious individuals including seven former heads of state and the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and was a seminal event for drug policy reform. Another important event, The Merida Declaration on December 6, 2011, went virtually unnoticed by the media and drug policy experts alike. Issued at the Tuxtla Dialogue and Agreement Mechanism in Yucatan, Mexico, the declaration was signed by eleven heads of state and high-level representatives of Central America and the Caribbean, including Mexico, Colombia and Chile, and asked “consuming countries … to explore possible alternatives …, including regulatory or market oriented options.”
2012 started with a bang when retired right-wing general Otto Perez Molina, newly elected president of impoverished Guatemala, rattled the world and instantly placed his country on the map by declaring the war on drugs a failure and forcefully advocating legalization. Recently emerged from a decades-long brutal civil war, Guatemala is one of the world’s worst-hit countries by narco-violence, together with its unfortunate neighbors, Honduras and Salvador.
Perez Molina has been unwavering ever since. He brought the drug legalization debate to the April Summit of the Americas, a gathering of all heads of state across the continent, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, except Cuba (banned by the US). More recently, he brought the debate to the UN general Assembly and was joined by Mexico and Colombia, the two major US allies in the War on Drugs, for a call to revise the international treaties on illicit drugs.
As Perez Molina is actively trying to build a coalition for drug policy reform, he met in early November with newly re-elected Hugo Chavez with legalization on the agenda. Venezuela is a major entry-point on the transit route of cocaine to the US through its extremely porous frontier with Colombia, and has often been a safe haven for Colombian narco-traffickers. However, the relationship between the Chavez regime and his cumbersome guests seems to be turning sour as violence has escalated dramatically in the country. Leftish Chavez joining right-wing Perez Molina in a coalition for drug policy reform might mollify the other members of the leftish Latin American coalition that includes Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Left-leaning Argentina president Kirchner might join as well. Uruguay announced in June its intention to legalize marijuana under state control and the proposal is currently churning through the legislative process, with vote expected before Christmas.
The US being by far, the largest market for illegal drugs in the world, the decisive victories of the marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington take special significance in such a context. It is noteworthy that the US Justice Department refrained from taking a position on these initiatives during the campaign despite being urged by legalization opponents.
November 6 was a watershed moment for marijuana legalization and drug policy reform. Both initiatives enjoyed wide support across the political spectrum ranging from the state democratic party to the GOP US Senate Candidate for Washington, Michael Baumgartner, or former GOP Congressman Tom Tancredo in Colorado. Sponsored by former US attorney John McKay and current City Attorney Peter Holmes, and with backing from the mayor and the entire city council of Seattle as well as the Seattle Times, the Washington initiative lined up the most impressive slate of main-stream backing and enjoyed double digits victory. Curiously, in Washington and Colorado, the staunchest opposition came from the medical marijuana communities. The Oregon initiative, placing no restrictions on cultivation for personal use, was generally considered too radical and was soundly defeated. The Massachusetts medical marijuana initiative provided the icing on the cake with a landslide victory and was another clear indication of the growing disconnect between politicians and the public on drug policy issues.
The marijuana legalization victories in the US will have momentous implications for Latin America and places the federal government in an awkward position, caught between internal and external pressure for reform. It certainly weakens its hands in its negotiations with its increasingly restive allies in the war on drugs. It might also give the needed impetus for the crystallization of a coalition of the willing and rally the support of the countries such as Costa Rica that have prudently stayed on the sideline until now.
The 22nd Ibero-American Summit, held on November 16 – 17 2012 in Cadiz, hosted by Spain and attended by Portugal and most Latin American countries provided a good test of the effects of marijuana legalization victories. Portugal and Spain have some of the most liberal drug policies in the world. Despite the economic crisis that has been shaking Southern Europe for the past few years, the summit offered a favorable environment for an open debate on drug policy reform and the final declaration called for an urgent UN debate on drug policy and an analysis of the potential consequences of legalization.
Colombian President is increasingly insistent in his call for global debate but remains reluctant to take a leading position. Meanwhile, the 5-months long relative power vacuum in Mexico will finally be filled when President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto takes office on December 1st. Peña Nieto will travel to Washington on December 4th and the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington will be high on the agenda. While he reiterated his personal opposition to legalization, in a Time interview published on November 27, Peña Nieto acknowledged that it may be time to reassess the War on Drugs and called for a hemispheric debate on its effectiveness and even raised the possibility that Mexico itself may legalize marijuana. Colombia has long sought the support of Mexico in its pressure for drug policy reform, a support that Calderon could never offer openly. Peña Nieto’s positions have been ambiguous so far, but he might not have alternatives if he cannot contain the violence in Mexico, a prospect that seems highly unlikely. There is always, of course, the possibility that the PRI will broker a pax-narca, but the fragmentation of the cartels and the emergence of the brutal Zetas may very preclude this possibility.
In the US, the reaction of the federal government has been muted so far, cantoned to a reiteration of the supremacy of federal laws. The president’s options might be limited, especially as the solid victory in both Washington and Colorado and a landslide medical marijuana victory in Massachusetts diametrically reverse the political risk of marijuana legalization, with opposition to the issue becoming increasingly politically risky with youths and minorities, two key constituencies in the rapidly evolving electoral landscape.
Several states, including Illinois and New York are expected to push medical marijuana through their legislatures while New England states intend to move to the next step to legalize recreational marijuana. This would of course further weaken the Federal government hand in its negotiations with the states as well as with its Latin American allies. There is no doubt that the November victories will embolden the states to resist federal interference with their marijuana policies, and will dampen Latin American appetite for the hardcore prohibitionist policies of the past. A corner has most likely been turned in the War on Drugs on November 6, 2012, a corner towards legalization.
Author of “World War D – The Case against prohibitionism, roadmap to controlled re-legalization”
“World War-D” on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0984690409/