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From Montevideo to Washington: A New Dawn for Drug Policy

By Robert Valencia

While both Mexico and the United States have adamant objections to drug legalization, their first order of business is to transform their common enemy: the drug war that is so rooted along their shared border. Luckily, for President Barack Obama and Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto, a series of developments across the continent—including new administrations in Latin America, a change of rhetoric in the region, and U.S. gun control proposals—may open the door to change in current drug policies, which have thus far failed to effectively assuage the so-called war and restore its collateral damage.

Peña Nieto, who took the presidential oath in December 2012, and incumbent President Obama who will swear in again on January 21, are facing a greater call to action on this issue both in their own territories and abroad. Despite Mexicans’ wide disapproval of marijuana legalization (79 percent over 19 percent, according to a Gallup poll), lawmakers from Mexico’s Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) presented an initiative before the Chamber of Deputies in November 2012 that seeks to regulate marijuana’s production, distribution, sale, and consumption. The lawmakers’ rationale behind their proposal is that such regulations would seize an important market from the hands of drug cartels, and it would help repair damages inflicted on Mexican society from all types of drug-related activities.

Likewise, U.S. states Colorado and Washington voters took measures to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, and seven more U.S. states are very likely to follow suit. Fifty percent of Americans still favor marijuana legalization.

In addition to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, led by three former Latin American presidents, advocating for treatment services over futile interdiction and massive incarceration, a group of international luminaries, including former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and several former Latin American presidents, recently signed a letterrequesting “new ways to minimize harms” and improve drug policies. The undersigned suggested a better approach based on “health, cost-effectiveness, and respect for human rights,” while tracking high-ranked drug dealers rather than mass-incarcerating individuals that carry small doses of narcotics. According to the letter, illicit drugs are the world’s most valuable industry—after food and oil—estimated to be worth over $350 billion per year.

Changing the rhetoric around the “war on drugs” is paramount, but the idea of legalization continues to remain taboo overall. Latin America has unexpectedly taken the lead on this language shift while passing landmark bills. During the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, the participating countries agreed to establish an Inter-American system to fight organized crime, and it was the first time in the history of the Organization of American States summits where the topic of drug legalization was overtly discussed. The first stepping stone to drug legalization appeared in Uruguay, whose administration announced in June 2012 that they would allow regulated and controlled legalization of marijuana under the argument that the war on drugs’ current model had failed. In November 2012, Uruguayan lawmakers introduced to Congress a proposal to create an institute that would allow licensed individuals and companies to produce and sell marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes, and it is expected that Uruguay will enact legislation fully legalizing marijuana by the end of January. Uruguayan President José Mujica has defended this model even in high profile scenarios, including at last year’s Rio + 20. Additionally, Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina, whose country has been stricken with drug and gang-related violence, has called to legalize drugs during the 2012 United Nations General Assembly.

After Uruguay’s historic drug legalization and drug supply proposal, Bolivia, one of the world’s top coca producers, strongly supported the initiative and called drug legalization “the only road” to curb drug-related violence, with governments in control of the sale of marijuana in lieu of violent drug cartels.  In another historic turn of events, Bolivia won a seat at the United Nations Anti-Drug Convention in January 2013. While facing opposition from 16 countries including the United States, Bolivia convinced the Convention that coca chewing, a centuries-old tradition among indigenous communities should not be punished. Mexico, for its part, also joined the Convention that penalizes drug production and supply.

Such rhetoric has met some detractors due to the dire consequences drug-related violence has cast upon some Latin American countries in the last 40 years. Colombian President Santos, for example, criticized Uruguay’s law and the recent passage of the U.S. states Colorado and Washington’s legalization of marijuana consumption. His comments, translated here in English, regarding the latter proved controversial “In these two [U.S.] States voters have legalized marijuana consumption. But then one goes to the Cauca [state of Colombia] where a farmer is sowing marijuana and he tells the farmer: ‘you’re committing a crime, you either have to eradicate [the crops] or you go to jail’. And over there, a gringo [in Colorado] is smoking pot with ease. That is a contradiction in and of itself. How do you think the world is going to deal with this?” Despite his opposition, President Santos was one of the endorsers of the aforementioned letter that pleads a change in drug policies.

Drug legalization must go hand-in-hand with rehabilitation and control in areas denominated as narcotics’ passageways. The Caribbean, for example, is one of the havens for drug transportation and trafficking. In this case, the newly minted administrations of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, , offer a silver lining in the control of drug smuggling and crime as they have eagerly expressed interest in halting drug-related trade and corruption in their own territories. During his January 4 inauguration speech, Puerto Rico’s Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla called out the National Guard to improve security, a request that the National Guard spokesman Maj. Paul Dahlen heeded: 50 soldiers and airmen will be stationed in ports and airports by February. Like in the rest of drug violence-stricken countries, restoring rule of law requires federal funding to shore up rehabilitation and law enforcement improvements, as the island is rife with police corruption. Meanwhile, Dominican President Danilo Medina recognized that drug trade is one of his country’s biggest challenges. The U.S. State Department and the DEA identified the Dominican Republic as one of the main entrance points in the so-called Eastern Caribbean Route, and it is believed a cell of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, under the leadership of kingpin of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, operates as the middle man in garnering and distributing cocaine to the U.S. and Europe. As a result, the Dominican Ambassador to the United States, Aníbal de Castro, requested help from the United States to improve its military apparatus. In this case, the new Obama administration should consider the inclusion of the Dominican Republic into programs like the U.S.-backed $165 million Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and its budget expansion. CARSI seeks to reinforce law enforcement presence in at-risk communities and enhance levels of security and rule of law coordination.

Another scenario that could act as a potential stepping stone in shifting drug policies is the rising discussion over U.S. gun control. Spearheaded by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the string of shootings in the United States last year has obliged the U.S. Congress to evaluate the current state of gun laws in the country. If stricter gun control were to take place this year, it would curb the influx of weapons through the porous U.S. Mexico border, and thus avoid transporting these guns through drug cartels. According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), 90 percent of the weapons confiscated in Mexico hailed from the United States. Given these numbers, the gun control factor is important in the fight against drug-related violence. This became especially apparent after the ATF’s biggest scandal in the last seven years, in which an ATF ran a series of “gun-walking” sting operations whose goal was to allow the purchase of licensed weapons in order to track the firearms once transferred to traffickers and key middlemen in Mexican cartels. But the scheme turned into the largest ever “gun-walking” scandal, known as “Operation Fast and Furious.” Of the 2,000 weapons sold, only 700 were recovered and most of the missing 1,300 firearms ended up in crime scenes in Mexico. None of the targeted drug dealers were arrested.

Surely, the U.S. and Mexico can claim that the current drug policy has granted important victories, such as the discovery of the Mexican drug cartels’ money laundering in horsetrack races and the transfer of billions of dollars between U.S. and Mexico units of UK-based banks HSBC and Standard Chartered in December 2012. Nevertheless, it behooves the Obama and Peña Nieto administrations to listen to the voices of the South while mulling over effective policies. Rehabilitation, curbing massive incarceration, and relaxation of law enforcement over drug possession are transferable policies that could prove to be steps in the right direction. Change will not be seen in the short term, but a public outcry for change is a noteworthy start. 

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Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.

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