Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Where Is the Drug Policy Debate Headed?

Q: Colorado and Washington state passed measures legalizing recreational marijuana in the United States' Nov. 6 election. Luis Videgaray, the head of President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto's transition team, said afterward that while the administration remains opposed to legalization, the measures could result in changes to its anti-drug strategies, The Washington Post reported. How will the measures in Colorado and Washington affect the federal government's relationship with Mexico in the ongoing fight against drug cartels? What effects, if any, would more widespread marijuana legalization in the United States have on Mexican criminal organizations? Where does the debate about drug policy in the United States and in the region appear to be headed?

A: Ray Walser, senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation: "I do not anticipate a significant alteration in U.S. policy on marijuana legalization. The Obama administration shows no signs of moving to endorse marijuana legalization, thus upholding long-established U.S. policy. Federal laws will continue to trump state and local initiatives, although the Department of Justice will govern enforcement priorities and medical marijuana distribution, now permitted in 18 states and the District of Colombia, will continue. While support for legalization has grown nationwide among younger voters, middle-aged and older Americans, those who have responsibilities for parenting largely oppose legalization. Efforts to change marijuana laws are driven by a disparate coalition of libertarians, revenue-seekers and wealthy backers such as Progressive Insurance's Peter Lewis and George Soros. Passage of legalization amendments in Colorado and Washington has to be balanced against rejection of similar amendments in California in 2010 and Oregon in 2012. Neither President Obama nor Attorney General Holder weighed in on the Colorado and Washington amendments, reportedly to avoid scaring off pro-Obama voters. I believe marijuana legalization is still opposed by the majority of Americans and will be so for the foreseeable future. Notwithstanding legalization in Uruguay and heavy diplomatic lobbying from Latin American leaders, I do not anticipate a change in the political climate in Washington. Finally, marijuana legalization is not a serious response to the continuing crisis of citizen security in the Americas. The case is not convincing that legalization would weaken the Zetas or the Gulf Cartel in Mexico. U.S. policy attention needs to keep focused on issues upon which there is consensus and a mandate for action: improved demand reduction, targeting drug profits and money laundering and eliminating vicious drug lords and dealers."

A: Peter Hakim, president emeritus, and Kimberly Covington, program associate, at the Inter-American Dialogue: "Both the U.S. government and governments in Latin America should view legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington as an opportunity to open a genuine dialogue about drug policy in the hemisphere. Latin Americans should resist the temptation to point fingers while the United States should emerge from a period of denial about its mostly failed drug strategy. Long frustrated by Washington's inflexible approach to drug policy, Latin America's discontent has mounted along with the surge in drug-related violence across the region. For its part, Washington has been increasingly troubled by the growing appeal of legalization as an appropriate policy alternative in Latin America. Now that the United States has become the first place where marijuana has actually been legalized in the region, both the United States and the countries of Latin America should have a common interest in systematically and scientifically examining marijuana legalization; assessing the range of consequences for use, addiction and trafficking; studying the implications for the consumption of alcohol, cocaine and other more harmful drugs; analyzing the impact on criminal profits and behavior; and exploring how best to regulate marijuana production and consumption. It is time for a long overdue, serious conversation between the United States and Latin America on drugs and what to do about them. The OAS, as mandated by the hemisphere's heads of state, is already hard at work studying alternatives to current drug policies and should be able to make an important contribution to the dialogue."

A: Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board, president of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: "There are now 22 states that have passed initiatives either legalizing recreational or medical marijuana. With laws in almost half of the 50 states now in conflict with the federal government, which purports to maintain its prohibition on the production, distribution or consumption of cannabis and other narcotics, something has to give. But the issue is not limited to contradictory federal and state laws within the United States. Countries like Mexico, the Central American nations and some Caribbean islands, which have been at the forefront of the fruitless fight against illicit drugs entering the United States from their territories, are now faced with a growing conundrum. While expensive and failed interdiction efforts have effectively been subcontracted by Washington to third countries, there is a clear tendency within the world's largest drug consuming country to remove both the stigma and legal prohibition against individual consumption. This will inevitably lead to a reconsideration of why we are spilling blood and spending huge sums of money to satisfy outdated laws that Americans themselves are gradually repudiating. Mexico, in particular, needs to re-examine its strategy in light of these recent developments and make a decision as to whether it wants to continue to fight a battle that a majority of Americans in a recent Gallup poll opposed. It is time for America to wake up and face the reality of its drug culture by harmonizing federal laws with citizen's demands and ending the criminalization of drugs. Mexico and many other countries in the region and beyond will benefit by removing the sale of at least soft drugs from organized crime and bringing it under the same controls that the government applies to alcohol and tobacco. Demand creates supply in this market just as it does in any open economy; as long as the demand remains, drugs will be supplied. Better to tax, regulate and supervise the market than to continue a failed strategy of pretending that the problem wouldn't exist if only producing and transit countries didn't allow drugs to reach the U.S. market."

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