As Prop 19 to legalize marijuana fails in California, Latin American leaders breathe relief

Current leaders of Mexico and Colombia were relieved that Prop 19 failed, but former leaders feel more free to express their support of relaxing drug laws.

Ed Andrieski/AP
A marijuana plant is shown in this Oct. 26 photo. Latin American leaders are relieved that Prop 19 failed in California.

Mexican government officials locked in a bloody battle against drug traffickers are sighing relief that Proposition 19 in California failed at the ballot box yesterday.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón had warned that the voter initiative, which would have legalized recreational use of marijuana, could put more cash into the pockets of drug runners and smugglers. He joined others across the region, such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who called the referendum contradictory and counterproductive.

But their relief only tells part of the story of sentiments around drug policy in Latin America. Another movement, largely headed by former heads of state, has gained steam, calling for the decriminalization of drug use. As President Calderón, for example, publicly decried Prop 19, arguing that legalization would increase demand and thus boost trafficker earnings, his predecessor Vicente Fox fired off hourly tweets in recent days that expounded its endless benefits.

Latin American under siege

And as Latin America, particularly Mexico and Central America, remain under siege from drug-related violence, the two sides are likely to continue to face off – even after the California initiative has failed.“You’ve got a mixed sentiment about this," says Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "Why are some presidents supporting this and others have been questioning it?”

Part of the answer might be found in the fact that ex-presidents have far fewer political and diplomatic pressures than those in power, which allows them to speak more freely, analysts explain. For example, presidents receiving funding from US sources to fight a drug war must ensure the money keeps flowing, says Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy in Washington.

"It's significant that the two presidents who have come out strongly against legalization, Calderón and Santos, are presidents who have
received a combined total of nearly $9 billion from the United States government to fight the drug war in their countries," Ms. Carlsen says, referring to funding from Plan Colombia and the Merida initiative. "They have also received a significant amount of political support for their presidencies as a result of those policies."

Colombia is even more compelled to tow the US line against legalization as the countries work out the kinks in a free trade agreement, says security analyst Ariel Avila in Bogota.

In previous years, lax views on drugs

But government statements conflict with sentiments expressed in previous years by former heads of state. As President Santos fervently opposed Prop 19, Cesar Gaviria, who led Colombia from 1990 to 1994, called the war on drugs a failure last year and advocated for a shift in policy away from prohibition. Mr. Gaviria was joined in his efforts toward decriminalization by another former Mexican chief executive, Ernesto Zedillo, and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

During a meeting in Colombia last month of several Latin America countries, many leaders sided with Santos and Calderón. Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, for example, called it "a contradictory message in the anti-drug fight," according to the Associated Press. It "would put at risk, sincerely, the consistency of the anti-drug fight," she said. "If we think that each country on its own is going to successfully face this problem, we're very wrong."

In many ways their views reflect the beliefs of Latin American constituents. In Mexico only between 15 and 20 percent have come out in favor of legalization, according to public opinion polls.

Yet at the same time, Calderón's armed offensive against organized crime may be losing its staunch public backing as over 28,000 people have died in nearly four years of conflict, raising calls for Mexico to try a new strategy. At one point even Calderón said he was open to a debate about decriminalization – even though he has said he opposes it in practice.

Some of the different thinking among former and current presidents may also be due to perspective, says Mr. Selee. "For former presidents who are looking at this as a big picture issue, they are saying 'if we legalize at least marijuana it will take money out of the pockets of organized crime,'" he says. "But for many of the current presidents, they are on the front line dealing with a current strategy to go after drug traffickers and they are afraid this will send a signal of weakness to the traffickers."

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