WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
2 Nov 2012 | Commentary

Taking the Initiative on Legal Marijuana

By John Walsh, WOLA Senior Associate

Two years ago, California’s bid to legalize marijuana—Proposition 19—achieved great notoriety in Latin America, but ultimately fell short at the ballot box. Next Tuesday, voters in the state of Washington appear ready to do what Prop 19’s supporters could not quite achieve—an Election Day victory.

Polling and prediction markets suggest that Washington’s Initiative 502 will prevail on November 6. Colorado voters might also put Amendment 64 over the top, although that is shaping up to be a closer call. Another legalization proposal, Oregon’s Measure 80, looks unlikely to pass.

Within the United States, plenty of ink has been spilled over these state-level marijuana legalization bids. But in Latin America, relatively little has been written, and none of it has resonated quite like California’s Prop 19 did in 2010. This year’s fiercely contested presidential race has understandably been the focus of most international attention. And California has the reputation of being a trend-setter, as well as being by far the most populous state in the country. Los Angeles County alone is home to more registered voters (4.5 million) than is the entire state of Washington (3.8 million).

But if the marijuana legalization initiatives in Washington and Colorado have been under-the-radar in Latin America so far, that could change dramatically by the time ballots are counted next week. Even if only one U.S. state were to approve legalization, the decision would reverberate throughout the hemisphere, where the drug policy debate has opened up dramatically—as President Obama learned first-hand at the April 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.

At one level, the consequences of a state-level vote in favor of legalization will depend on real-world implementation, and that will in turn depend on how the federal government responds to the state action and to the specifics of the state’s new regulatory design. The federal Controlled Substances Act prohibits the production, sale, and possession of marijuana, and the Justice Department has been silent on how it might react to passage of legalization by a state. The nature of the federal response will itself be affected (to a greater or lesser degree) by which candidate wins the presidential election next Tuesday. Among the strategies that federal authorities might consider, the one that might seem obvious at first glance—dramatically stepped-up enforcement by federal agents—is not likely in practice. More targeted federal responses could include withholding federal funds or threatening to seize marijuana tax revenues.

The practical impacts of state-level legalization, should implementation proceed, would not be merely domestic. For example, researchers at the Mexican think-tank IMCO have estimated that state-level marijuana legalization could diminish the income of Mexican drug trafficking organizations by hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

But apart from exactly how legalization would play out in practice—the federal response, the structure of the market, cross-border impacts, etc.—a state-level vote in favor of legal marijuana would be of enormous importance symbolically, both in the United States and in Latin America.

Within the United States, national surveys have indicated a steady growth in support for legalizing marijuana. In 2011, Gallup found that half of Americans supported the idea of making marijuana legal, up from 34 percent in 2001, with younger voters most in favor of legalization. Even in the wake of Prop 19’s defeat in California, the sense has become that state-level legalization is a matter of “when,” not “if.”

“When” looks very much like “now,” at least in the case of Washington and perhaps also Colorado. The politics of marijuana legalization will continue to differ by state, but a win in one state would help shift the political calculus; rather than considering marijuana policy reform as, at best, a topic to avoid, more politicians may see it in a new light—as a potentially voter-friendly issue that spans the ideological spectrum.

The symbolic importance of a win for state-level legalization would extend well beyond U.S. borders. The U.S. government is well-known in Latin America for its role as chief architect and champion of the “war on drugs,” including the marijuana prohibition regime embedded in the United Nations drug conventions. Even if federal law remains unyielding, the state-level move toward legalization in the home of the modern drug war could hardly go unnoticed in Latin America.

This is especially the case today, since the debate over drug policy in Latin America is more vibrant than ever. On the one hand, the OAS report mandated at the Cartagena summit is to include a chapter specifically about “legal and regulatory approaches to the drug problem.” Especially once a U.S. state has voted to legalize, it would be difficult to imagine how the OAS report could fail to raise marijuana legalization as a possible policy option, however opposed the U.S. federal government might be.

At the same time, the leaders of several countries that have been close U.S. “drug war” allies—Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico—continue to call for international reconsideration of the current drug control paradigm. Last month, those countries formally requested that the United Nations begin preparing for an international conference to review all options, “including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that prevents the flow of resources to organized crime organizations.”

Of even greater immediate significance, this year the Uruguayan government introduced legislation that would legalize and regulate the marijuana market in that country. Parliamentary debate over the proposal is underway, with a vote in Uruguay’s House of Representatives possible before the end of November.
Approval of legalization in at least one U.S. state next week would certainly give the Uruguayan effort a boost.

Public opinion surveys and prediction markets aside, the polls on Election Day are ultimately the only ones that matter. If one of the marijuana legalization initiatives should pass on November 6, it will represent a genuine milestone for drug policy reform, not only for the United States, but for Latin America and the rest of the world.

The U.S. federal government may prove unwilling or unable to stay out of the way once legalization is approved at the state level, so implementation is still anybody’s guess. But federal moves to block implementation would not mark the end of the story, but only the beginning of a new chapter—a chapter that begins with marijuana legalization as a political reality, not merely a distant prospect.

Colorado and Washington "took the initiative" to create a legal, regulated market for marijuana. Click here to read a post-election analysis of the vote.

See also:

WOLA's position on marijuana legalization (video) (John Walsh, 2012)

Cannabis Regulation: “Someone has to be first …” (Martin Jelsma and John Walsh, 2012)

All Eyes on California: Prop 19 and the Growing Debate on Marijuana Policy (John Walsh, 2010)

California’s Proposition 19 Falls Short, but Moves the Marijuana Policy Debate Forward (John Walsh, 2010)