Latin America

US endorses Mexico’s marijuana legalization ruling

“It’s up to the people of each nation to decide policies,” says State Department

Supporters of marijuana legalization in Colorado.
Supporters of marijuana legalization in Colorado.LINSLEY / ap

The United States has backed a decision made by Mexico’s Supreme Court last week that paves the way for the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.

On Thursday, the US State Department called for broader cooperation between the United States and Mexico in the fight against drug trafficking, but stressed that each country should come up with its own policies concerning drug use.

The comments from a State Department spokesman reflect the drastic shift in tone made by Washington since two US states – Washington and Colorado – legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2012.

Some experts see it as a “great change in rhetoric” by the US government after two states legalized marijuana three years ago

They also come at a time when more Latin American nations are questioning whether the US’s drug strategies and policies in the region have been effective.

“It’s up to the people of each nation to decide policies,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. “And in this case, it’s up to the people of Mexico to decide which drug policies are most appropriate for their country within the framework of international law. That said, our focus in Mexico is to strengthen our law enforcement partnership and build Mexican capacity to combat drug trafficking and the violence that we know it breeds.”

On Wednesday, a criminal court panel at Mexico’s Supreme Court voted in favor of legalizing marijuana after a cannabis club filed a complaint against the government.

Peter Reuter, professor in the school of public policy and department of criminal at the University of Maryland and a narcotics expert at the RAND Corporation, said Kirby’s comments were another example of the “great change in rhetoric” by the US government since the states of Washington and Colorado voted to legalize marijuana three years ago.

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President Barack Obama has said that smoking marijuana is no more dangerous than drinking alcohol, but his administration has taken no steps to legalize the drug. However, other states are debating the issue.

Following voter referendums in Colorado and Washington, Reuter said that the Obama government “had to take a step back” in its international position in complying with treaties regarding drug consumption.

“Until 2012, the State Department said that it was irresponsible to legalize marijuana because it was a violation of international treaties,” Reuter said in a telephone interview.

But that stance has been softened following the Colorado and Washington referendums.

On Thursday, Kirby said that the United States was “firmly committed to the three UN drug conventions,” but added that these treaties “allow for a degree of flexibility on how member-states implement their obligations, particularly with respect to drug use, and the conventions anticipate variations in national legal frameworks.”

Since the 1970s, the United States has invested billions of dollars in its war against drugs with the aim of destroying the Latin American cartels. But the trafficking and consumption of drugs from Mexico remains as strong as ever.

The Mexican government’s own crackdown has resulted in the deaths of around 80,000 people and the disappearance of around 20,000 others since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón declared a war on the cartels.

It is estimated that 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States comes from Mexico while between 40 percent and 67 percent of the marijuana consumed by Americans is shipped from south of the border.

“The majority of people think that all [US strategy in Latin America] does is move production and shift trafficking routes,” Reuter said. But it also has the added consequences of fueling violence and corruption throughout the region.

In the 1980s, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia were responsible for 65 percent, 25 percent and 10 percent respectively of the world’s cocaine production, according to figures offered last year by David Huey, who was director of NGO Oxfam in Colombia between 2007 and 2012. But in 2000, Colombia accounted for 90 percent of cocaine production after the United States began eradicating coca production in neighboring Andean countries.

“The war against drugs led by the United States has failed in cutting production, trafficking and illegal drug consumption but at the same time has enriched and empowered criminals,” according to a recent report by the NGO Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Latin American countries have also begun to rethink Washington’s strategies. In 2013 the Organization of American States (OAS) held its first high-level debate on changes in drug policy. Meanwhile, in May of this year, Colombia stopped fumigations of coca fields after concerns were raised that the pesticides might cause cancer.

English version by Martin Delfín.

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