Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

To Reduce Narcotics Violence, Decriminalize Marijuana, Say Latin American Politicians



On Tuesday, former Mexican President Vicente Fox added his name to a growing list of prominent political figures urging the decriminalization of marijuana. He painted the current militarized approach as misguided and ineffectual, saying “it can’t be that the only way is for the state to use force.”

It’s not the first time Fox has publicly supported decriminalization. During his term in office, Fox urged the Mexican Congress to pass a similar measure, only to veto it when it reached his desk. No doubt, pressure from Washington forced the change of heart.  At present, however, Fox’s position alligns with notable politicians on both sides of the border.

Back in November, both Michigan and Massachusetts voted to loosen marijuana laws, and in California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has acknowledged that it’s time for debate” about legalization. For many in the Golden State, that debate is already decided: medical marijuana is currently the state’s largest cash crop, and Democratic state congressman Tom Ammiano has introduced legislation that would legalize the drug, generating billions in revenue via a $50 levy on every ounce sold. In the midst of a recession that’s opened up a a sizeable hole in the state budget, the windfall of drug revenue seems too good to pass up.

It’s also estimated the bill would save $1 billion a year by reducing the number of arrests, prosecutions and inmates from possession charges.  With the world-leading incarceration rate—much of it for drug-related crime—some in the federal government are questioning the logic behind our drug war (though few are willing to contemplate—let alone advocate—decriminalization).

Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration’s Drug Czar, told reporters Thursday that he wants to “banish the idea that the US is fighting a ‘War on Drugs.’” Though the position is largely one of semantics at the moment, it does signal a new, more liberal approach to drugs and criminal justice.

The significance is no doubt apparent to Former President Fox, who acknowledged that any effort by the Mexican government must “be done in conjunction with the United States.” Nevertheless, the Mexican congress has taken the lead, passing a bill that decriminalizes simple possession of marijuana and cocaine. President Felipe Calderón, a conservative, is expected to sign it soon.

Fox is not the only prominent Latin American politician to come out in favor of decriminalization this spring. In April, three other former Latin American presidents—Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gavíria of Colombia, and Fox’s predecessor Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—urged the same as a means of staunching drug cartels’ principle source of revenue and mitigating the region’s rampant drug violence.

“The problem is that current policies are based on prejudices and fears and not on results,” said Gavíria.

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