Friday, November 16, 2012

Mexico's Response to U.S. Pot Legalization

Last Tuesday, Washington and Colorado passed referendums legalizing recreational marijuana use, a move which some crime analysts have predicted will curtail the Mexican cartel's profits and that many hope will mark the beginning of the end for the United States' long, much-criticized "War on Drugs."

When conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, he launched a drug war that put thousands of soldiers on the streets. Since then, some 60,000 Mexicans have been killed, an estimated 10,000 have gone missing and around 250,000 have been forced from their homes. While the approved referenda will not halt an increase in these statistics, the decision signals a change in the Western Hemisphere's approach towards drugs and counternarcotics efforts.

The decision has already prompted debate on anti-drug policies in Mexico, as well as around the region, and will certainly affect the coordinated counternarcotics strategies between the United States and its southern neighbor. Mexico now is facing the possibility having to try to stop the smuggling of a product in heavy demand and considered illicit within its own borders, but legal in parts of the United States. Mexico is said to provide between 40-67 percent of the marijuana currently consumed in the U.S. Though the sale, distribution and and use of marijuana is now considered legal in Colorado and Washington, it still remains illegal under U.S. federal law.

As John Walsh from the Washington Office on Latin America notes, the U.S. government is known in Latin America for its lead role in championing the "war on drugs," and thus "the symbolic significance of the passage of the marijuana legalization proposals is already obvious, both in the United States and in Latin America."

Last week a top official in Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto's incoming administration said the legalization "changes the rules of the game" in the war on drugs and would require a joint review of policies with regard to drug trafficking and security in general, calling the decision an "unseen element."

He expressed the problem directly, saying, "Obviously, we can't handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status."

Peña Nieto, who takes office December 1, has signaled he plans to focus his security force strategy towards curbing the endemic violence plaguing Mexico's citizens, suggesting he will move away from current President Calderón's staunch, militarized drug interdiction program and "kingpin strategy," which targets the leaders of Mexico's cartels, although he plans to continue on with Calderón's use of the military to fight crime. Peña Nieto has also said repeatedly that he opposes drug legalization, which Videgaray reiterated Wednesday.

On Monday, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, along with the leaders of Belize, Costa Rica and Honduras, "issued a joint statement" calling for a hemispheric analysis of the implications of the move to legalize. Calderón went on to say that it marked a fundamental "paradigm shift" in global drug policy and required an analysis of public policy and health in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Some have said that the government is no longer in a position to continue to pressure other nations in its anti-drug crusade. On Tuesday, President Calderón said the United States now has a limited "moral authority" to ask others to champion prohibitionist policies and continue the fight against illegal drug trafficking. As drug analyst Alejandro Hope from the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMOC) told Time Magazine, “Now it would be very hard for the U.S. to tell people not to legalize marijuana.”

Mexican Congressman Manlio Fabio Beltrones echoed calls for renewed reform, saying, “This obligates us to think deeply the strategy we have to have in Mexico toward fighting this criminality,” highlighting the fact that "the largest consumer in the world has liberalized its laws."

Despite recent emphasis on the IMOC study claiming the implementation of legalization would cut cartel funding by 20-30 percent, the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, thinks it “may not have that big an impact on the finances of the cartels.”

Speaking at an event at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., he said anyone who thinks legalizing marijuana is the answer to ending violence in Mexico is “absolutely wrong,” and that cartels will “muscle into other illegal activities.” He also noted that the decision has had a "profound impact" on Mexicans' perceptions of their country's marijuana interdiction efforts. “It will be hard for a public official to explain to the mother of a federal police officer killed seeking to deter a shipment of marijuana coming into the United States that that was a good thing given that two states in the U.S. legalized marijuana,” he said.

Cesar Duarte, governor of the violence-ridden Chihuahua state (home to Ciudad Juarez) saw a possible positive economic outcome for Mexico, proposing the organized, legal exportation of marijuana. "We would have control over a business which today is run by criminals. And which finances criminals,” he said in an interview with Reuters.

It was reported Thursday that the United Nations deemed the legalizations a violation of international treaties that require drug enforcement. The President of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Raymond Yans, voiced his concerns, saying the referenda "pose a great threat to public health and the well-being of society far beyond those states.”

However, the decision comes as other countries in Latin America set out to find their own alternative approaches to the drug issue. In August, Chile introduced a legalization bill that is still in the congress, while Uruguay is close to voting on a bill that would allow adults to purchase up to 40 grams of marijuana each month and have six pot plants, producing up to 480 grams (just over a pound a month). It would also allow individuals to form pot groups of up to 15 people [to] grow up 90 plants, producing 720 grams (almost 16lbs) of marijuana per year.

On the heels of Uruguay's legalization legislation progression, Mexico's leftist Democratic Revolution Party (Partido de la Revolucion Democratico or PRD) presented a bill of their own on Thursday to legalize the production, distribution and use of marijuana.

Several Latin American leaders have called for reforms, including the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala who called for drug policy reform at the UN General Assembly meeting in September, while many former leaders, including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, former Colombian leader Cesar Gaviria and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, have signed statements criticizing U.S. counternarcotics policies.

Organized crime analysis organization InsightCrime says that the legalization will have little effect on cartel income as the cartels can fill in the financial disparity with other illicit activities. (See InsightCrime's map from April 2012 on the drug policy positions of leaders from the region)

However, the implications of the referenda -- both in America and throughout the region -- are a long way off, as the two states have to create regulations and infrastructure in early 2013, supposing they survive any challenges in court and depending on the U.S. government's enforcement of federal drug law, which classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug along with heroin and LSD. So far the government has remained fairly silent on the matter, with the Justice Department merely saying "its enforcement policies remain unchanged" and they are reviewing the initiatives.

In the event that the referendums are ultimately overturned or delayed, their introduction at the very least signals a change in the international discussion on drugs. As Walsh points out , "it’s a safe bet that now that that Colorado and Washington have put legal marijuana on the map, fresh initiatives to legalize marijuana will be on the ballot in other states in the years ahead, and that federal marijuana law itself will eventually be revised to keep up with the times."

What seems to have emerged, particularly in recent weeks, is a more united chorus for debating drug legalization, or at least decriminalization, and finding alternatives to a failing drug war.