The Crossed Destinies of the Marijuana Legalization Debate

While in the United States referendum results in Colorado and Washington –approving recreational use of marijuana - have changed the national conversation about cannabis; in Latin America this decision is viewed with concern. Several Presidents in the region point to this measure as a contradiction in U.S policy that promotes a punitive perspective outside the country but tolerates its use at home. With a growing support from the public opinion, the door for the debate regarding legalization in the United States is partially open. Meanwhile, in Latin America the situation is less clear; many citizens still have major doubts regarding this option, they are not convinced about legalization as a way out to the drug problem.

During the last weeks, the tone of the debate in the United States has changed. Former president Jimmy Carter declared that he is “in favor” of states that are taking steps to legalize the drug and former president Bill Clinton said in the film Breaking the Taboo that the War on Drugs “hasn’t worked”. Additionally, President Barack Obama, in an interview with Barbara Walters, declared that recreational users of marijuana should not be a “top priority” for federal law enforcement officials prosecuting the war on drugs. Neither, president Obama did not explicitly stated his support to the idea of legalization, or he closed the door to explore this option.

It is important to note that in the United States those declarations have as a background the increased support of citizens to marijuana legalization. In October 2011, a Gallup poll found for the first time, that most (50%) of U.S citizens support legalizing marijuana (in 2006 this proportion was only 36%). In a recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling (from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, 2012), 58% of U.S voters said they think marijuana should be made legal. While the Department of Justice remains silent, the debate continues and more states could open the door to marijuana legalization.

In Latin America, legalization in the United States is viewed with concern and discontent by several public authorities. According to the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, the results of the referendums in Colorado and Washington pose a contradiction because they allow citizens in the United States to “smoke a joint” without any repercussion, while in Latin-American producers must face prison. Following the same line are the presidents of Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica who declared that the legalization in United States has important implications, making enforcement of marijuana bans more difficult. These leaders do not object to the legalization of marijuana per se, but believe that this process must be the result of an international consensus on changes in drug policy.

In the midst of this situation, one of the fact that calls the attention is the recent decision of president José Mújica to stop its own plan to legalize cannabis in Uruguay, arguing that people were “not ready yet” to support this project. According to a poll conducted by Cifra, 64% of Uruguayans are against this initiative. This shows an important element for the debate in Latin America: in most countries public opinion opposes legalization. Based on the Latinobarómetro poll 2011 - taken in 18 countries across the region -, on average 72% of Latin Americans disagree with drug legalization. However, the question does not distinguish between different types of drugs – percentages might be lower for marijuana legalization only.

Under this context, the year 2012 ends with a strange – and probably paradoxically – balance on the debate of legalization. While in the United States, there is a feeling that the door to discuss marijuana legalization is open and there is an opportunity to make changes, in Latin America, legalization in the United States has caused concerns and discontent and the most important initiative to marijuana legalization – the project in Uruguay - was stopped because of the lack of support from citizens. However, this situation should not obscure the significant progress made in the public discussion regarding the hemisphere’s failed war on drugs, and the need to adopt a different strategy. On the contrary, it is necessary to intensify the debate within the countries and have a clear regional position about a likely legalization of marijuana in the United States. Latin-American countries must decide whether changes are going to be the result of a regional consensus, or if it will be a unilateral decision from the United States – again.

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