Latin America's leaders condemn California's Prop. 19 to legalize marijuana

Californians vote next week on whether to legalize recreational marijuana use. The presidents of Colombia and Mexico on Tuesday called Prop. 19 'confusing' and 'inconsistent.'

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Marijuana is harvested in Davenport, Calif., on Oct. 12. Many in Latin America say a 'yes' vote on Prop 19 would undermine their fight to root out organized crime and stem illegal drug production and distribution to the US.

With death tolls mounting and institutions under threat from drug trafficking organizations, some Latin American leaders are condemning a California initiative that would legalize recreational marijuana use.

Many in Latin America say a “yes” vote on Proposition 19 on Nov. 2 would undermine their fight to root out organized crime and stem illegal drug production and distribution to the United States.

The debate is a contentious one in America, and opinion south of the border is also divided over how Prop. 19 could affect drug violence in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Some say it would be a blow to drug traffickers, as it would rob them of a lucrative market, while others say it will do little to impact overall revenues and could in fact increase demand and sales from illegal gangs.

Bullets and cocktails

Javier Oliva Posada, a drug expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says it is hard to gauge how the initiative would affect the international marijuana market and the strategic fight against organized crime. But the implications on morale in Mexico are clear, especially if a regional approach is not taken.

"As Mexican authorities see a death toll increase and human rights abuse allegations go up, they will look at the other side smoking marijuana for fun,” he says. “On this side there will be bullets, and on the other there will be cocktail parties.”

The issue was at center stage at a Tuesday summit in Cartagena, Colombia, where leaders expressed concern over Prop. 19 and urged countries to take a firm, uniform approach to drug policy.

America's confusing policies

"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," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said during his speech.

His sentiments echo earlier views expressed by President Felipe Calderón in Mexico, where more than 28,000 lives have been lost to drug-related violence since Mr. Calderón took office and dispatched the military to fight organized crime in December 2006. His military strategy has been lauded by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Calderón, who has long placed blame on the US for not doing enough to stem demand for illegal narcotics, called the initiative inconsistent. "They have exerted pressure and demanded for decades that Mexico and other countries control, reduce, and fight drug trafficking, and there is no discernible effort to reduce the consumption of drugs in the United States," he said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

Time to change strategy?

United States officials have recognized concern raised in other countries over the ballot initiative in California. While some states have approved the medicinal use of marijuana, Prop. 19 would allow adults over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and would permit people to grow the plant on private property. City and county government would have the power to decide on sales and taxes.

Criticism expressed Tuesday in Colombia contrasts with a parallel movement arguing for liberalization of drug policy in Latin America. A commission last year by three former Latin American presidents – of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia – argued that prohibition has failed amid sustained drug use and growing violence.

Dogged by violence, Mexico has also begun to debate easing up prohibition. Last year Mexico decriminalized small amounts of drug possession. But it is still illegal to sell or cultivate marijuana.

Pedro Isnardo de La Cruz, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says authorities have condemned Prop. 19 because it undermines the military campaign currently being waged in Mexico – one he says is failing.

“It sends an important message to Mexico that it should modify its strategy,” he says.

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