A ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in California seems like sensible policy for America’s largest state, but it has exposed deep rifts between the U.S. and its allies in the global war on drugs.
For as long as I can remember, the United States and Colombia have been firm allies in the war on drugs. The roots of this alliance can be traced to the heyday of Pablo Escobar, when both countries engaged in all-out war against drug cartels that had previously enjoyed a degree of official tolerance. The Americans’ interest in fighting Colombian traffickers stemmed from a surge in drug consumption and drug-related crime in American cities in the 1980s, around the same time that the Colombian political establishment began to understand the threat posed by the ambitious and pathologically violent Escobar.
Although much has changed in both Colombian and American politics since the days of the Medellin cartel, this shared interest in fighting drug trafficking has made for a relatively stable friendship. After the September 11 attacks, Alvaro Uribe astutely presented Colombia’s drug war as a key front in the global war on terror and quickly became George W. Bush’s best “amigo” in Latin America. Under current President Juan Manuel Santos, an Uribe disciple, much was expected to remain the same, except for some symbolically significant but ultimately minor changes in U.S. anti-drug aid to Colombia. On the surface, Colombia and the U.S. seem happy allies.
But ask any Colombian about the global war on drugs, and they are likely to express resentment of our country’s role in it. True, the vast majority of Colombians support the government’s fight against the abhorrently violent groups that dominate the drug trafficking business: guerrillas, paramilitaries and sleazy mafia bosses. On the other hand, there is a strong sense that Colombia has been paying the high economic and human cost of America’s war on domestic consumption. This storyline is rooted in the slightly oversimplified (though not entirely inaccurate) view that consumers are largely concentrated in the wealthy United States but the bulk of the violence is concentrated in Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Despite its prevalence, this view rarely comes up in high-level discussions between American and Colombian officials. Indeed, never has a Colombian president been as vocal as current Mexican leader Felipe Calderon in blaming U.S. consumers and misguided U.S. policy for local violence. So it was somewhat surprising when President Santos brought up this very objection in criticizing a popular referendum to legalize marijuana in California. If the referendum passes, Santos argues, it will be yet another example of the U.S. enjoying all the benefits of drug policy and Latin America shouldering the costs. The President also suggested that the referendum would hinder his own efforts to justify the drug war at home. How can he prosecute peasants for growing pot when wealthy Californians can grow and smoke it legally?
As Election Day in the U.S. has approached (Americans will head to the polls this coming Tuesday), Santos has repeatedly expressed concern about the prospect of legalization. Initially, he only mentioned it in low-key interviews with the Colombian media, but he made the topic a central point of discussion at a recent summit of Latin American leaders in the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena. Santos and other Presidents condemned the initiative even surprisingly strongly, essentially calling it hypocritical for consuming countries to liberalize their drug policies after years of pressuring Latin American countries into violent confrontations with producers and traffickers.
Santos’s declarations are provocative, though not entirely valid. For example, pot legalization in California would have virtually no impact on Colombia’s drug war. Colombian traffickers do not contribute to the domestic marijuana market in the U.S. and have not for quite some time. Some Colombian media outlets have speculated that legalization would make Californian pot cheaper and therefore exportable to Colombia, but it seems highly unlikely that legal pot entrepreneurs would take on the significant risks associated with shipping large amounts of the stuff to South America. Besides, marijuana, a relatively cheap and harmless drug, has never been the either Colombia or America’s main drug problem. So-called “hard” drugs like cocaine and heroin put much more money in the cartels’ pockets.
If Santos has no reason to fear the referendum’s concrete impact, just what is he complaining about? He certainly does not have a theoretical objection to legalization per se. In fact, prior to joining the Uribe government, he called on world leaders to reconsider the policy of drug prohibition. In doing so, he echoed other prominent conservatives who argue that the war on drugs has failed to reduce consumption and greatly exacerbated organized criminal violence. This view, famously advocated by right-leaning Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Freidman, has become particularly popular among Latin American conservatives like Santos, former Mexican President Vicente Fox and Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.
If Santos has previously leaned toward reforming drug policy, the natural starting point is marijuana, which is less toxic and addicting than alcohol and tobacco (as Santos probably knows from his own personal experimentation with the drug decades ago), but is responsible for the bulk of drug-related arrests in the United States. And there are few better places for this experiment to start than California, too distant from Colombia to disturb Santos’s own domestic anti-drug efforts. In short, the ballot initiative does not seem to be a bad thing from Colombia’s point of view.
Nevertheless, Santos was right on at least one point: the U.S. has a moral responsibility to at least invite Latin American countries into its domestic policy debates. Drug trafficking and consumption are inherently transnational issues and require international solutions. Moreover, U.S. drug policy is largely responsible for Colombian and Mexican gangs’ large profits and, in turn, their immense firepower. Therefore, for America to unilaterally change drug policy stinks of abandonment. Of course, it is Californian voters and NOT the U.S. federal government who would legalize pot in the state, but Santos seems to view this technical point as secondary to the general sense of betrayal.
For now, the main regional consequence of the California initiative is, paradoxically, that governments have pledged to continue the war on drugs will continue. Mexico and Colombia have already made a somewhat unnecessary but symbolically significant pledge to soldier no matter what Californians decide. The U.S. federal government, which has been at odds with liberal California ever since the state began to allow medical marijuana in 1996, has similarly promised to remain a firm ally. In other words, although the prospect legal pot in the state has begun to chip away at the war on drugs’ theoretical foundation and key intergovernmental alliances, it has ironically prompted a coherent rhetorical backlash against reform.
More importantly, however, the California ballot initiative and the Latin American reaction to it are signs of things to come in drug policy debates. On the one hand, it is clear that, even if the proposition fails, it has blazed new ground in the drug debate. Pro-legalization groups around the United States will be inspired into more aggressive action and the tide will continue to turn in favor of reform as marijuana gains more mainstream acceptance and as awareness of the cost of the war on drugs rises. On the other hand, as the U.S. and other countries begin to have inevitable debates about decriminalization and legalization, the international response to the California initiative makes clear that Latin American countries expect a seat at the table.