Decriminalizing drugs in the Americas

Map of America by Stuart Miles at
Map of America by Stuart Miles at

I’ve talked before in this blog about the idea of decriminalizing drugs as some European countries, such as Portugal, have already done. What is surprising is the rapidity and momentum behind this idea throughout the Americas. In November 2012 both Colorado and Washington decriminalized marijuana possession. Indeed, in Washington State the police recently handed out Doritos (along with a new marijuana legal fact sheet) at a public pot smoking event. But events in these states represent only the vanguard of a much larger movement.

In Canada, Justin Trudeau (the son of former Prime Minister Trudeau) is leading in the polls, although a national election won’t be held until 2015. He has recently pressed for legalizing marijuana, which the liberal party itself adopted as a policy platform at its 2012 party convention. Interestingly, Trudeau was recently revealed to have smoked marijuana, after which his popularity figures increased. The conversation in Canada appears to now be shifting to issues such as the economic impact of legalized marijuana. British Columbia, long famous for its marijuana production, sees neighboring Washington State as a model, and believes that the province could particularly see economic benefits from legalization.

Of course, what is driving this conversation is not only the referendums in Washington and Colorado, but also the sad and bloody history of the drug war in Latin America, which I’ve covered before on this blog. Since 2006, perhaps 60,000 people (the true number is likely much higher) have died in this battle. In part this struggle began because authorities achieved successes against the Colombian cartels in the 1990s. It seems likely that if Mexico were to also suppress the cartels that the trade would only shift to states -most likely in Central America- less able to repress it. For this reason, there is a sense of exhaustion with the drug war throughout Latin America.

Since stepping down from power in 2006, former Mexican President Vicente Fox has become a vocal advocate for decriminalizing marijuana:

“This year, he has stood alongside former Microsoft executive Jamen Shively as he marketed a plan to operate a chain of “premium” pot dispensaries to serve a market Shively estimates could top $200 billion in the U.S. alone. And as if Fox could envision the profit margins of being a supplier to such a chain, he declared in June that when it’s legal, he’ll grow it. `I’m a farmer, I can do it,” said Fox, who owns a ranch in Guanajuato state.”

Mexico City may legalize marijuana before the country as a whole, but at this point the political shift in the country is clear. Increasingly, major political and intellectual figures are advocating the decriminalization of marijuana.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the trend is the same. Chile is having a conversation about the possibility of legalizing marijuana that is still in its early days. In contrast, Uruguay will likely become the first country in the Americas to legalize marijuana, as this article suggests: “Earlier this month, Uruguay’s House of Representatives passed a bill legalizing marijuana and regulating the production, distribution and sale of the drug by the government. While the bill has yet to be approved by the Uruguayan Senate, its passage is expected. Uruguay would then become the first country in the world where marijuana is fully regulated from cultivation to sale.”

There is a difference between decriminalization (in which personal possession is no longer a crime) and legalization, in which all aspects of the trade are legal. Both Washington and Colorado, for example, have decriminalized marijuana, without legalizing the drug. In this respect, Uruguay’s legislation perhaps the most ambitious in the hemisphere.

In International Relations there are two dominant theories of security. Realists believe that the international system exists in a state of anarchy, which means that there is no higher power to which a nation state can reliably appeal for aid. In this context, nation-states have an obligation to provide security for their citizens, which entails traditional military power. In contrast, human security focuses on dangers to populations beyond those that are strictly defined in military terms. After all, an influenza outbreak might cause more casualties and death than almost any invasion or conflict. For people in many developing countries, traditional military threats may seem remote, while pollution, climate change or crime are pressing issues. Human security advocates also argue that using non-military means to address a crisis may also prevent events from reaching the stage at which armed force is used. These two schools of thought advocate widely different paths to addressing the problem of drugs.

The realist model, which the United States adopted in the 1970s, advocates a “War on Drugs” in which security forces attack the cartels that head the drug trade, while at the same time seeking to seal the border, and arresting those people who use drugs. I would argue that after forty years, this approach has failed. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The issue of drugs has come to dominate the nation’s relationship with Mexico, and caused immense suffering in that country, without approaching resolution. This war seems to be no more likely to end in victory than did the war against alcohol during Prohibition. In this context, in may make sense to think of treating the drug trade as a human security problem, which might mean framing the issue in terms of public health. While most drugs are a social evil and destructive, it may be that the best way to address the problem is to minimize harm, without imprisoning the drug users. And in the case of marijuana, it may be that -like alcohol, a much more dangerous drug- the answer is a sensible legal framework.

In the U.S. Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently announced that he had reversed his opposition to medical marijuana. After considerable research, he realized that the original decision to list marijuana as a schedule one substance was made in the absence of sound scientific data. Despite that fact, and the emergence of considerable information about the medical uses of marijuana, it has remained on that list for over forty years. At this time, it may make sense to rethink the larger Western approach to the drug war.

If you are interested in Latin America, you might want to read my own book on military terror in Brazil.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

1 thought on “Decriminalizing drugs in the Americas”

  1. Pingback: Falling Demand for Mexican Marijuana | Intro to Global Studies

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