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Drug policy smoke signals

There have been more changes concerning the legalization of drugs in Latin America and the United States in recent months than in whole decades

Concerning the legalization of drugs in Latin America and the United States, there have been more changes in recent months than in whole decades. The first of these took place on November 16 in the states of Colorado and Washington, where voter majorities inclined for the legalization of marijuana. While similar initiatives have failed (narrowly) in Oregon and California, the results send out a message on a groundswell shift in public attitude.

Obama's reaction was equally decisive. He, too, won easily in both states, but to pronounce on the issue was complicated. The legal problem is important, marijuana still being an illicit substance under US federal law, as well as in several international conventions. And in different areas, notably migration, Obama has rejected the pretensions of states to set their own policy, insisting on the federal government's prerogative. Though recent surveys show a small majority of US citizens in favor of legalization, those who oppose it are vigorous and vehement.

But Obama has said that the enforcement of federal law in Washington and Colorado was not a priority, that he had "bigger fish to fry," and that legalization was not on the cards "at this moment." For the first time a US president has hinted at future change. Lastly he suggested that there ought to be "national discussion" on the matter.

While these smoke signals rose in the US, another appeared in one of the world's major supplier countries: Mexico, through which passes most of the drugs consumed in the US (cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines). On December 1 Enrique Peña Nieto succeeded Felipe Calderón as president, giving rise to introspection and revision of policy, though there are no plans for change in the short term. Unfortunately for Calderón, but fortunately for Mexico, many are now beginning to take a severe view of his "war on drugs."

In Calderón's six-year mandate about 25,000 people went missing in Mexico

For example, in early December The Washington Post noted that, according to government reports shown to its correspondent, in Calderón's six-year mandate about 25,000 people went missing in Mexico, as well the approximately 60,000 deaths that have been directly linked with the anti-drug war.

The NGO Human Rights Watch sent an open letter to the former president asking, among other things, what he planned to do about the disappearances. Soon the new government began to leak or explicitly denounce the high legal, bureaucratic and financial costs of Calderón's policies, noting that security expenses had soared, while the occurrence of every sort of crime had increased.

In short, the most recent instance of the traditional approach, based solely on punitive, prohibitionist policies, is a catastrophic failure, both in its costs to Mexico, and in the absence of results for that country, the rest of Latin America and the United States.

Thus the principal proponents of this policy - Calderón, Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, the present and past presidents of Brazil, and the conservative sectors of the Washington security establishment, are losing ground, and have seen their public support waning, while the partisans of a different strategy, based on policies of public health and legalization, are advancing (President Santos in Colombia, Pérez Molina in Guatemala, and others).

In Uruguay it is expected that a new law will soon legalize marijuana. The Organization of American States is preparing a report on alternative strategies. Predictably other US states will soon legalize marijuana, either fully or for therapeutic use (18 states have already done so). Historic change is on the way. It will not happen overnight, or everywhere, or for every drug. But after decades of repression, bloodshed and criminalization, things are beginning to change. Pity it took so long.

Jorge G. Castañeda is a political analyst.

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