WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
29 Oct 2010 | Commentary | News

All Eyes on California: Prop 19 and the Growing Debate on Marijuana Policy

By: John Walsh, WOLA Senior Associate

Registered voters in California will be the ones voting next Tuesday on whether to legalize marijuana under state law.  But the ballot initiative in question – Proposition 19 – has sparked debate far beyond the state's borders. The fate of Prop 19 is being watched especially closely in Latin America, and for good reason.  Proximity to the United States – still the world's major market for illicit drugs – has helped to stimulate robust illicit drug production and distribution networks in the region.  And U.S.-backed militarized enforcement to suppress the drug industry, combined with harsh laws to punish drug users, have made the "war on drugs" more than metaphorical in many Latin American countries.  In Mexico alone, over 30,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since December 2006.

At one level, the likely impact of Prop 19's passage would be less than is commonly assumed.  For example, a recent RAND Corporation study demolished an oft-cited figure that marijuana sales account for 60 percent of Mexican drug trafficking organizations' revenues, concluding that legalizing marijuana in California alone would not dramatically reduce the profits enjoyed by Mexican traffickers, who would still enjoy the revenues generated by selling illicit drugs such cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.  Therefore, whether or not California legalizes marijuana, Mexico will still have to contend with powerful organized crime groups, and will still have to make enormous strides to combat corruption and strengthen its own policing and justice institutions.

Moreover, how the changes envisaged by Prop 19 would play out in practice remains unclear, in large part because U.S. federal law still prohibits marijuana.  President Barack Obama's administration has voiced its opposition to Prop 19, and the commercialization provisions of the initiative would seem likely to be stymied because of federal opposition

On the other hand, Prop 19's mere presence on the ballot in California – the nation's most populous state, with 23 million eligible voters – is reverberating in LatinCopy America at the symbolic and political levels, accentuating the sense that the global drug control system put in place nearly 50 years ago has been unable or unwilling to accommodate changing circumstances and attitudes.

In raising concerns about the impact of Prop 19's possible approval, Colombia's new president, Juan Manuel Santos, maintained:  "If we don't act consistently in this matter, if all we're doing is sending our citizens to prison while in other latitudes the market is legalized, then we should ask ourselves:  Isn't it time to revise the global strategy towards drugs?"

To be sure, President Santos' question begins from an exaggerated premise.  Californians are considering whether to legalize marijuana, not whether to legalize illicit drugs in general – legal cocaine or heroin is not on the ballot.  It is also unclear whether Santos really intends to circle the wagons in defense of the drug war status quo, or is instead looking, however cautiously, to parlay the attention on Prop 19 into a serious reconsideration of drug policy in the Americas.  Still, his question is a fair one, and highlights the essential issue in the case of marijuana policy:  Is prohibition the best approach to minimize the harms caused by marijuana use?

To be clear, the policy question is not simply whether marijuana use can be harmful; it obviously can, although by comparison to other illicit drugs and to alcohol and tobacco, the public health impact of marijuana use appears modest.  The question is whether there are alternatives that can minimize the harms of marijuana use but avoid generating the exorbitant social costs that prohibition's enforcement has entailed, including suffering caused by arrest and incarceration, disproportionate enforcement against minorities and disadvantaged groups, criminal control over the production and marketing of a widely-used substance, and illicit revenues that enhance the power of organized crime groups.  In the case of marijuana, the costs of prohibition evidently and increasingly outweigh the benefits. 

Santos' question – and Latin America's focus on Prop 19 – is especially relevant in light of the major U.S. role in establishing and enforcing global marijuana prohibition.  The U.S. government was the primary architect and has long been a leading proponent of the global drug prohibition regime, embodied in three United Nations conventions, beginning with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.  This regime explicitly includes marijuana among the substances subject to the strictest prohibition.

Given the influential U.S. role in creating and enforcing the global marijuana prohibition regime, it is reasonable to expect that increasingly liberal attitudes among U.S. voters regarding marijuana policy will eventually have repercussions on the global regime.  Of course this will not happen overnight, even if Californians choose to legalize marijuana at the state level.

But the California vote is important nevertheless.  For many years now it has been clear that Washington would not be taking the lead on major drug policy reforms.  Whatever elected officials in Washington may think privately about the wisdom of marijuana prohibition, reform has long been regarded as a high-risk/low-return proposition politically.  State and local governments – the "laboratories of democracy" in the U.S. federal system – have therefore been the primary venues for innovation.  Ideas deemed too bold to take up in Washington can begin on a smaller scale, be adopted by other states, and perhaps eventually be reflected in national policy.  Naturally not every policy experiment will succeed, but lessons can be learned from mistakes and failures as well as from successes.

So whatever Californians decide on November 2, the fact that literally millions of voters will be considering an approach to marijuana that is quite distinct from prohibition is already invigorating the drug policy debate, usefully bringing to the fore basic questions about the suitability of the global prohibition framework for marijuana, by far the most ubiquitously produced and widely-used illicit drug in the world.  The debate over alternatives to marijuana prohibition appears set to grow rather than subside in the years to come. 

doonesbury 2



DOONESBURY, Garry Trudeau, 28 October 2010, published in Slate.




About the author: John Walsh coordinates WOLA's Drug Policy program, integrating research and advocacy in support of more humane and effective drug policies in the Americas.  Respected for his combination of careful policy analysis and effective advocacy, Mr. Walsh has helped make WOLA a key voice in the growing movement to make human rights and harm reduction central concerns of drug policy.

Also see:

Development First:  A More Humane and Promising Approach to Reducing Cultivation of Crops for Illicit Markets (with Coletta Youngers, 2010)

Assessing U.S. Drug Policy in the
:  Time to Revisit Goals and Strategies
(testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives, 2009)

Drug Decriminalization:  A Trend Takes Shape (with Coletta Youngers, 2009)

Lowering Expectations: Supply Control and the Resilient Cocaine Market (2009)

For media inquiries, please contact:
John Walsh, WOLA's Drug Policy Senior Associate
[email protected]; (202) 797-2171; (617) 584-1713

The Washington Office on Latin America promotes human rights, democracy, and social justice in Latin America and the Caribbean.  WOLA has monitored and shaped U.S. policy in the region for more than three decades.  WOLA is a bridge-builder and standard-bearer for the fair and humane treatment of people throughout our hemisphere.

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