U.S. Marijuana Laws Ricochet Through Latin America

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Stringer / Reuters

A soldier throws a bundle of marijuana into a bonfire during a military operation at Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico, on Sept. 27, 2012

President Obama has yet to deliver a clear response to the November decision by Colorado and Washington to legalize recreational marijuana use — asked whether the government would enforce federal laws that override the verdict of those states’ referendums, he answered simply that he has “bigger fish to fry.” But leaders from across Latin America responded within days of the Colorado and Washington vote, demanding a review of drug-war policies that have mired the region in violence. Latin American decisionmakers are now openly questioning why they should continue to sacrifice police and soldiers to enforce drug laws when legal markets for marijuana now exist in the U.S.

“Everyone is asking, What sense does it make to keep up such an intense confrontation, which has cost Mexico so much, by trying to keep this substance from going to a country where it’s already regulated and permitted?” says Fernando Belaunzarán, a Congressman from Mexico’s opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party who introduced a marijuana-legalization measure in the legislature a week after the U.S. elections. The measure, Belaunzarán tells TIME, is modeled on the Washington State law and would put the federal government in charge of marijuana production, regulation and sales. The Congressman says he expects the lower house to convene public hearings on marijuana legalization by May 2013.

(MORE: Four Decades Later, It’s Time to Scrap the Dead-End Drug War)

Belaunzarán joins a growing list of Latin American leaders calling for a change in the drug-war paradigm — one that considers drug decriminalization and legalization as alternatives to the U.S.-led prohibitionist model, the enforcement of which has helped turn swathes of Latin America into the world’s most violent regions. Shortly after the U.S. elections, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, along with leaders from Honduras, Belize and Costa Rica, said the U.N. General Assembly should hold a special session on drug prohibition by 2015. They also called on the Organization of American States (OAS) to study the impact of current drug policy in the region. That OAS review, well under way, is expected to be concluded in June.

(MORE: How Latin America May Lead the World in Decriminalizing Drug Use)

A major concern centers on drug cartels. Estimates of Mexican cartel profits from marijuana sales to the U.S. vary from $2 billion to $20 billion annually. And recent studies suggest that the Colorado and Washington pot laws could dent cartel profits by up to 30% given the probable emergence of cheaper, U.S.-produced marijuana. That loss of revenue, and therefore of power, could generate more violence in the region, experts fear. But the notion that drug cartels would suffer mammoth losses remains an open question. It also underestimates the growing sophistication of Mexican criminal groups.

Mexican cartels have diversified their criminal portfolios with impressive speed since 2006, when Calderón began deploying the army against them. Besides marijuana profits, cartels generate an estimated $15 billion annually from human trafficking, preying on Central and South American migrants making their way north toward the U.S. Criminal gangs are also increasingly relying on Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil behemoth, for added income. Oil theft has surged in recent years, netting cartels roughly $500 million annually, according to Mexican studies. And the methamphetamine market represents another opportunity to supplement any revenue lost to marijuana sales. Cartels have responded to a recent drop in U.S. meth production by flooding the market with the synthetic drug, producing it on a mass scale in northern Guatemala.

“The [U.S.] marijuana laws will have absolutely no impact on criminal group’s balance sheets,” Edgardo Buscaglia, an organized-crime expert and senior research scholar at Columbia University, tells TIME. “They have diversified their criminal activity with astounding efficiency, just like any legal enterprise.”

Whether the U.S. laws will undercut cartels at all remains to be seen, but no impact is likely to be felt anytime soon. Still, the Washington and Colorado referendum results have reshaped the drug-war debate in Latin America, emboldening regional leaders to press for a global discussion on drug policy, organized through the U.N., aimed at changing drug-war tactics.

(MORE: Uruguay’s Plan to Legalize Marijuana Sales: Should the Rest of the World Follow?)

Until now, the U.N. has ignored those calls, but there are signs it may soon take up the matter, according to former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who, with the former Presidents of Mexico and Colombia, launched the hemispheric debate on drug decriminalization in 2009. That year he wrote an open letter criticizing the current drug war and calling on the region to discuss alternative strategies. “Members of the U.N. agree we need to revisit the subject, but the problem is that sectors within the U.N. that deal specifically with drugs are very conservative,” Cardoso tells TIME. “In my meetings at the U.N., I noticed that the pressure to unite a U.N. assembly specifically dedicated to discussing the subject is mounting. And that’s important.”

Global drug policy is unlikely to change soon. But decriminalization advocates see encouraging signs. In just a few months, they point out, the Marijuana-legalization discussion has reached levels of urgency and legitimacy never before seen. Marijuana legalization, they point out, is now a political reality throughout the hemisphere. They are also encouraged by President Obama, who recently framed the marijuana conflict between state and federal law as one to be resolved, instead of simply dismissing state law. “It’s time the world discuss a new paradigm to confront drugs,” says Belaunzarán. “In Latin America it’s already happening. And the U.S. is applying it de facto because states are already regulating marijuana.”

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