Latin America is now at the vanguard of international efforts to promote drug policy reform: Bolivia has rewritten its constitution to recognize the right to use the coca leaf for traditional and legal purposes, Uruguay has become the first nation in the world to adopt a legal, regulated Cannabis market, and Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador are openly critiquing the prevailing international drug control paradigm at the UN. And now with the United States itself relaxing its marijuana laws state by state, the U.S. prohibitionist drug war strategies are losing credibility in the region.
Across the Americas, an unprecedented debate on drug policy reform is underway. While a regional consensus on what form those reforms should take remains elusive, there are at least two issues where consensus is growing: the need to address drug use as a public health, rather than criminal, issue and the need to promote alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and ensure proportionality in sentencing for drug-related crimes. Draconian drug laws were often adopted in Latin American countries with the encouragement – if not outright diplomatic, political and economic pressure – from the U.S. government.
Mexico and the United States cannot pursue diverging policies on marijuana legalization, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto was quoted as saying, hinting he may be open to following the lead taken by some U.S. states in changing drug laws. Political pressure has grown in Mexico to take a more liberal stance on marijuana. In an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, Pena Nieto said "we can't continue on this road of inconsistency between the legalization we've had [...] in the most important consumer market, the United States, and in Mexico where we continue to criminalize production of marijuana."
At the root of the drug policy debate in Latin America is growing recognition that present policies have failed to achieve the desired objectives, the extremely high costs of implementing those policies paid by Latin American countries, and the need to place higher priority on reducing unacceptably high levels of violence. Of particular concern is the spread of organized crime and the resulting violence, corruption and erosion of democratic institutions.
Latin America has emerged at the vanguard of efforts to promote debate on drug policy reform. For decades, Latin American governments largely followed the drug control policies and programs of Washington’s so-called war on drugs. Yet two parallel trends have resulted in a dramatic change in course: the emergence of left-wing governments that have challenged Washington’s historic patterns of unilateralism and interventionism and growing frustration with the failure of the prohibitionist drug control model put forward by the US government.
Argentina has given the first sign that Uruguay’s groundbreaking cannabis reform just may have started a domino effect across Latin America. Following the momentous vote by its smaller neighbor’s senate this month — making it the first nation in the world to completely legalize the cannabis — Argentina’s anti-drug czar Juan Carlos Molina has called for a public discussion in his country about emulating the measure. His comments are the clearest sign yet that Uruguay’s strategy has kicked off a trend in the region.
Michael Weissenstein, E. Eduardo Castillo (Associated Press)
07 November 2012
The legalization of recreational marijuana in the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado will force Mexico to rethink its efforts to halt marijuana smuggling across the border, the main adviser to Mexico's president-elect said. Luis Videgaray, head of incoming President Enrique Pena Nieto's transition team, told Radio Formula that the Mexican administration taking power in three weeks remains opposed to drug legalization.
A group of Latin American leaders declared that votes by two U.S. states to legalize marijuana have important implications for efforts to quash drug smuggling, offering the first government reaction from a region increasingly frustrated with the U.S.-backed war on drugs. The declaration by the leaders of Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica did not explicitly say they were considering weakening their governments' efforts against marijuana smuggling, but it strongly implied the votes last week in Colorado and Washington would make enforcement of marijuana bans more difficult.
Given the recent calls by several Latin American presidents for a debate on legalising drugs, would the United States show any flexibility in its stance on prohibition? “None,” was the answer of Joe Biden, America’s vice-president, who was in Mexico City on March 5th to meet the three main contenders in July’s presidential race. Mr Biden arrived under unprecedented pressure from regional presidents for the United States to give way on prohibition, which many in the region blame for generating appalling violence.
Ending the consumption and the trafficking of illegal drugs is “impossible”, according to Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s outgoing president. In an interview with The Economist Mr Calderón, whose battle with organised crime has come to define his six years in office, said that countries whose citizens consume drugs should find "market mechanisms" to prevent their money from getting into the hands of criminals in Latin America.
Faced with this soiled wedge between state legislation and federal law within the United States, Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto and his advisors have already concluded there will have to be a significant change in their anti-narcotics policy. Weeding out the marijuana issue was prudently left to behind closed door discussions.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon says the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in two U.S. states limits that country's "moral authority" to ask other nations to combat or restrict illegal drug trafficking. Calderon says the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado represents a fundamental change that requires the rethinking of public policy in the entire Western Hemisphere.
Like a growing number of Latin American leaders, Peña, who takes office Dec. 1, says it may be time to reassess the drug war. In an interview with TIME, Peña has made his first direct remarks on the U.S. marijuana-legalization measures and how they complicate a four-decade-old drug interdiction strategy that has been widely branded a failure in both Mexico and the U.S.
Vice President Joe Biden heads to Latin America Sunday amid unprecedented pressure from political and business leaders to talk about something U.S. officials have no interest in debating: decriminalizing drugs. Presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Mexico, all grappling with the extremely violent fallout of a failing drug war, have said in recent weeks they'd like to open up the discussion of legalizing drugs. Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Mexico already allow the use of small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption, while political leaders from Brazil and Colombia are discussing alternatives to locking up drug users.
Relationships with countries racked by drug violence and organized crime should focus more on economic development and less on the endless battles against drug traffickers and organized crime capos that have left few clear victors. The countries, Mexico in particular, need to set their own course on security, with the United States playing more of a backing role. That approach runs the risk of being seen as kowtowing to governments more concerned about their public image than the underlying problems tarnishing it.
Latin American leaders are increasingly speaking out against prohibition. And public opinion in America, especially when it comes to legalizing pot, is shifting very rapidly. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has wrapped up a trip to Mexico and Honduras, where he held talks with Central American leaders on regional security efforts and drug trafficking. Biden’s visit comes amid an emerging rift between the Obama administration and its Central American allies on the drug war. There is a growing belief among Central American leaders that decriminalization and legalization of some drugs could help reduce the power of drug cartels and reduce the bloodshed connected to the drug war.
There was a lot of drug-war hand-wringing in the U.S. leading up to President Obama’s visit to Mexico. That’s because Mexican President Peña Nieto is in change-the-conversation mode: he wants Washington to focus less on his country’s awful drug violence – some 60,000 narco-related murders in the past seven years, with little sign of abating – and more on its robust economic potential. The fear in some Washington circles is that Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which in its dictatorial 20th-century heyday was every drug lord’s cuate, or best buddy, is putting the fight against Mexico’s vicious cartels on the back burner.
Voters in Colorado and Washington state who approved the recreational use of marijuana Tuesday sent a salvo from the ballot box that will ricochet around Latin America, a region that's faced decades of bloodshed from the U.S.-led war on drugs. Experts said the moves were likely to give momentum to countries such as Uruguay that are marching toward legalization, to undercut Mexican criminal gangs and to embolden those who demand greater debate about how to combat illegal substances.
Leaders from across Latin America responded within days of the Colorado and Washington vote, demanding a review of drug-war policies that have mired the region in violence. Latin American decisionmakers are now openly questioning why they should continue to sacrifice police and soldiers to enforce drug laws when legal markets for marijuana now exist in the U.S.
Washington’s hard-lined anti-legalization position is unlikely to waiver regardless of who wins the upcoming U.S. presidential election. A more important question lies in Washington’s loss of influence within the region over the last ten years. As a result, the potential for legalization makes the overall political ramifications unpredictable for the region. This is especially true when it comes to Uruguay, a country that will soon be voting on the world’s first legalization legislation.