Marijuana legalization: Obama opposition too selective

When Latin America talks of legalizing drugs, Obama officials speak up. What about ballot measures in Colorado and Washington Sate to approve marijuana legalization?

Carlos Julio Martinez/AP Photo
A police officer walks among seized packages of marijuana in Cali, Colombia, last month. Colombia and other Latin American nations may discuss marijuana legislation at a coming Summit of the Americas.

Voters in two states, Colorado and Washington, will be asked this November if they want legalization of marijuana. Similar ballot measures are being pursued in a few other states. If approved, these initiatives would mark a dramatic first for America.

So what does President Obama have to say about these state challenges to federal antidrug policy?

Silence, so far.

Yet two of his closest officials have lately been quite eager to speak out against the mere talk of pot legalization in other countries.

Last month, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told Central American leaders that legalization “is not the way” to stop drug trafficking. And on a visit to Mexico on Monday, Vice President Joe Biden repeated the message, saying legalization in the region would create more problems than it solves, such as an increase in drug addiction.

These warnings by Obama officials may be aimed at a drive by Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez, to rally Latin American leaders around the idea of legalizing drugs as a way to undercut the profits of powerful drugs cartels. The conservative ex-general has already gained some support in the region after he first floated the idea in January.

The Obama administration seems to want to dampen the effort quickly. The issue could come up at next month’s Summit of the Americas in Colombia. If so, Mr. Obama may be forced to take a very public stand on legalization just as the 2012 campaign is heating up. During his first presidential campaign, he deflected questions about legalizing cannabis.

Once in office, Obama did eventually launch a crackdown on many dispensaries of “medical” marijuana in the 16 states that allow such use. The main reason? A lot of the pot, especially in California, was being diverted around the country for resale to recreational users. Meanwhile, the administration only quietly released an official stance against legalization.

During his visit to Central America, Mr. Biden seemed sympathetic to the region’s frustration with drug cartels and their violence. He said a debate over legalization is understandable “in societies that don’t have the institutional framework and the structure to deal with organized, illicit operations.”

Did the vice president mean to imply that the United States does have the “institutional framework” to deal with illicit drug sales? If so, why does marijuana use only rise?

The administration needs to step up and make a strong case against legalization in the US in order to counter a well-financed, well-organized pro-marijuana effort. One argument is that the cartels would actually welcome legalization, in the same way that US casino owners have welcomed state gambling lotteries. To drug dealers, the more addicts the better.

Biden did say a debate in Latin America about legalization would help “lay to rest some of the myths that are associated with the notion of legalization.”

How about he and Obama start to challenge those myths in states like Colorado and Washington?

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