In an earlier post, I talked about the move to decriminalizing marijuana in the Americas. What struck me last August how quickly this idea has gained political momentum, both within the United States and internationally. In the United States, medical marijuana is legal in 40% of states, while the next state to fully legalize the drug for recreational use may be Alaska. A recent article in the Washington Post examines the impact that this trend is having both in the United States and in Mexico. On the positive side, in Sinaloa the demand for marijuana has collapsed, with current prices just a quarter of what they were five years ago. Nick Miroff quotes one Mexican farmer about this economic transformation: ““It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.’” While this economic change should weaken the power of the major drug cartels, it has also had an unintended consequence: Mexican farmers are transitioning to opium, which is used to produce heroin. According to the article, Mexican cartels have adopted heroin as their key product, and they are pushing near treatment centers in the United States.
In my “Introduction to International Studies” class, I usually use the drug war to talk about the competing perspectives of realism and human security. Typically, most students are much more comfortable advocating for a human security approach to drugs; at the same time, they always make a distinction between marijuana and other drugs such as heroin, which they do not advocate legalizing. If accurate, Miroff’s article is pointing out an unintended consequence of marijuana legalization. On the one hand, the drug lords will have far less funds as demand for Mexican marijuana declines. On the other, this step may strengthen their drive to market heroin as an alternative crop. At this point, does legalizing still look like a viable means to address the drug war, or a slippery slope to the total legalization of drugs, more on the Swiss model? Many scholars point to Switzerland’s provision of methadone and free needles as a possible approach, given the fact that it has reduced both deaths and HIV infections. But this approach would seem to be a non-starter in the United States. Sadly, Miroff’s article suggests that legalizing marijuana may be helpful but not decisive in the drug war. Still, anything that undermines the economic power of the drug cartels must be a step forward. It’s worth remembering that perhaps 120,000 people have died in the Mexican Drug War since President Calderon sent troops into Michoacan to fight the trade in 2006. Nearly 30,000 people are missing. At this point, there may be no easy choices, which seems to be inherent to all security issues.
Do you want to read more about security issues? Click on the “security” tag in the word cloud on the right. Or if you would like to learn more about the health impact of the drug trade in Latin America, see my book The AIDS Pandemic in Latin America. Lastly, if you’d like to see more news on organized crime in Latin America, www.insightcrime.org is a great resource.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University