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Biggest blow to Mexico drug cartels? It could be on your state ballot.

A Mexican study says legalizing marijuana for recreational use in the US - an issue on the ballot in three US states - could cut the proceeds of Mexican drug gangs by 30 percent.

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What about drug-related violence?

Today's propositions have many critics, including those who are simply against it because marijuana is a drug and drugs are bad, they say. But even separating out the moral part of the question, it could have very little impact on violence in Latin America, which is what leaders here care most about, and the reason they are pioneering alternative drug policies. (In fact, critics suggest that it could make drug trafficking organizations more dependent on other drugs and illegal activities to make up for losses in the marijuana market).

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Europe Bureau Chief

Sara Miller Llana moved to Paris in April 2013 to become the Monitor's Europe Bureau Chief. Previously she was the paper's Latin America Bureau Chief, based in Mexico City, from 2006 to 2013.

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Martin Jelsma, an expert on drug policy in Latin America at the Transnational Institute in the Netherlands who supports legalization measures, says that the revenue loss would not be insignificant for Mexican groups – as it is estimated that they depend on marijuana sales for about a quarter of total revenue. But there is still cocaine and heroin. “It is clear for Mexican cartels that cocaine and heroin are the areas where in terms of export they earn the most,” says Mr. Jelsma.

(And in looking at the “big picture” of the war on drugs, Mr. Hope said in an interview this summer for The Christian Science Monitor cover story that the discussion of legalization of marijuana really only has implications for Mexico. “Although marijuana has taken center stage [in the debate], it is pretty much meaningless in any country except in Mexico. The only large exporter [of marijuana] in the region is Mexico. If everyone legalizes it tomorrow, in Guatemala homicides would go down by zero and nothing,” he told me.)

But, Jelsma points out, even if drug violence in Latin America were to persist, the political implications of a “yes” in Washington, or Colorado, or Oregon could be far-reaching.

“The indirect effect could be even bigger in the sense that if such a thing happens in the US it would also increase [the] possibility and political space for things to happen in Latin America itself, also in the case of Mexico,” he says.

The last time the US faced an initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, in 2010, many leaders looked upon it wearily. At a 2010 summit in Cartagena, Colombia, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in relation to California’s Prop. 19:  "It's confusing for our people to see that, while we lose lives and invest resources in the fight against drug trafficking, in consuming countries initiatives like California's referendum are being promoted," President Santos said.  (See the entire Monitor story on this here.)

Fast-forward two years. Santos is one of the leaders calling for a “rethink” on drug policy. And just weeks after the US election, Uruguay is poised to vote on a first-of-its-kind, state-regulated drug market. President José Mujica of Uruguay earlier this year floated his idea to establish a system in which marijuana would be produced and distributed under state control (See the Monitor’s report on Uruguay’s initiative here). If even one US state and one country were to move forward – and they could show at a practical level that drug consumption does not go up, says Jelsma – he believes other countries could quickly follow. “It’s the breakthrough needed,” he says.


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