It started last summer, when it seemed that Mexican President Felipe Calderón had understandably reached the end of his rope. After 52 innocent people were massacred in August by drug gangsters who set fire to a Monterrey casino – 52 added to the almost 50,000 drug-related murders in Mexico since 2006 – an angry Calderón said that if Americans were so “determined and resigned to consume drugs, then they should seek market alternatives in order to cancel the stratospheric profits” fueling the ghastly narco-bloodshed. Everyone agreed that by “market alternatives,” Calderón meant some sort of drug legalization.
Everyone, of course, except the White House, where legalizing drugs is a political third rail, especially during an election season. Still, it put the Obama Administration on the spot to hear one of its staunchest drug war allies even hint at legalization – and it got even worse a couple months later when another major partner, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, said that he himself was not “not against” legalization. In recent weeks that call was taken up by Guatemalan President Otto Pérez and other presidents in Central America, an isthmus that drug gangs have turned into a killing field almost as horrific as it was during the civil wars of the 1980s. The Pentagon calls the Central American triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras “the world’s deadliest zone” outside Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Organization of American States (OAS) warns that drug gangs now pose a threat to Latin America’s fledgling democracies.
Today, March 6, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will visit with Pérez and other Central American leaders – and, fittingly, they’ll meet in Honduras, now home to the world’s highest homicide rate: 86 murders per 100,000 residents last year, 17 times that of the U.S. and five times more than even Mexico’s. There are a number of reasons for this Mesoamerican nightmare, including Central America’s hopelessly corrupt and medieval police and judicial systems, which the region’s oligarchies (who are content to simply line their mansions with razor wire and security guards) refuse to modernize. But as far as presidents like Pérez are concerned, the root cause is the U.S.’s insatiable demand for pot, coke, meth and heroin – we spend more on illegal drugs in America than we do on higher education – and increasingly they’re coming to the conclusion that a good way to keep los narcos from earning their “stratospheric profits,” which they use to buy the guns that wreak the mayhem, is to legalize some of the drugs.
The U.S. has responded by reiterating its “opposition to decriminalization or legalization of illicit drugs,” as one White House official said last week. But there is a broadening global consensus that the 40-year-old “war on drugs” has failed. So Biden – who in Mexico on Monday said “there is no possibility” the U.S. will back legalization but did add “it’s worth discussing” – would do well to listen to Pérez and company today in Tegucigalpa and not be a gringo scold when they bring up the legalization issue. Because to a certain if not large extent they’re right: as countless drug-war observers like myself have argued in recent years, it makes sense to legalize at least more benign narcotics like marijuana, a drug that accounts for as much as half of the $30 billion the Mexican narco-cartels rake in each year.
What’s more, marijuana legalization is suddenly gaining acceptance in the U.S. Whereas just five years ago surveys showed Americans opposed it by an almost 2-to-1 margin, a recent Gallup poll showed 50% of them in favor of it and only 46% against it. Colorado and Washington will have the issue on their ballots in the fall, and other states may as well. That’s largely because fewer and fewer of us buy the U.S. drug-war leadership’s argument that pot is somehow as personally addictive and socially destructive as harder drugs like cocaine – or that it’s inevitably a “gateway” to those more dangerous narcotics. Meanwhile, more and more of us are tired of seeing U.S. law enforcement squander as much as $8 billion a year chasing down a drug widely considered no more harmful than alcohol if consumed in moderation.
And Latin American leaders like Calderón, Santos and Pérez know that, which is why their own ears are increasingly deaf now to Washington’s worn out insistence on letting drug cartels instead of tax collectors profit from marijuana sales. Ditto for the former Latin American heads of state who lead the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which calls for legalization. For now, Latin American presidents, including El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla, are only calling for the issue to be discussed – but they want both the U.S. and the U.N. to take that conversation more seriously. Santos realizes that if he were to unilaterally legalize even marijuana in Colombia, “I will be crucified” in Washington and at U.N. headquarters in New York. But he emphasizes that he wants this debate because, as he told The Guardian recently, Colombia is “still suffering most [from] the high [drug] consumption” in the U.S. and Europe.
Pérez and his Central American counterparts might argue that it’s they who are suffering most today. Not that their motives are always pure. Pérez, a former army general, is most likely using legalization to a large degree as leverage to get the U.S. to restore the military aid to Guatemala that was cut off as a result of armed forces atrocities committed during that country’s 1960-96 civil war. And Central America’s elites, despite paying some of the world’s lowest tax rates, are always looking for ways to shame Washington into paying for the police and judicial upgrades that they feel no social or moral obligation to fund themselves. (Last year Honduras’ ruling business families made sure that a desperately needed $400 million tax levy for improved security got chopped by 75%.)
Still, even if the leaders Biden meets with today are using legalization as leverage to wring more anti-drug aid out of the U.S., it’s because they believe it’s effective leverage. Even if the White House dismisses marijuana legalization, the rest of the world increasingly does not – especially in places where they’re reaching the ends of their drug violence ropes.