Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: D.C. marijuana vote will test ‘war on drugs’

Here’s the biggest irony of Tuesday’s mid-term elections: the U.S. government will continue demanding that Mexico, Colombia and other countries fight the marijuana trade as part of its “war on drugs,” while Washington voters have just approved making pot legal in the U.S. capital.

Under an initiative passed by D.C. voters in Tuesday’s elections, residents aged over 21 will be able to possess two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants for recreational consumption outside federal lands, pending congressional approval of the measure.

Meanwhile, voters in Oregon and Alaska on Tuesday approved much stronger marijuana legalization measures. Much like Colorado and Washington state did two years ago, Oregon and Alaska passed ballot measures that will create a legal market for recreational marijuana.

Florida was the only state in which a marijuana amendment was defeated, but only because it received 58 percent of the vote, rather than the 60 percent required under state law. Many Florida voters rejected the measure, which proposed allowing medical marijuana, arguing that the proposal was too vaguely written and could have allowed anybody to consume pot by claiming to have something as simple as a headache.

But the symbolism of the nation’s capital’s residents approving recreational use of cannabis — and the fact that 54 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization, according to a recent Pew Center poll — will pose a major foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration, and for the Republicans who will control both houses of Congress.

How will U.S. officials demand with a straight face that Latin American countries sacrifice their law enforcement agents to fight marijuana, when people in the U.S. may soon be smoking the drug a few steps away from the White House, many Latin American officials are already asking.

Jose Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the 34-country Organization of American States, told me Wednesday that the D.C. marijuana vote “will speed up the process of debate over marijuana legalization in Latin America.”

He added that for countries that are being asked by the United States to eradicate pot, such as Mexico and Colombia, “the logical question will be whether fighting marijuana makes sense at a time when five U.S. states already have legalized recreational marijuana, and more than 20 others have approved some form of medical marijuana.”

Uruguay has recently become the world’s first country to legalize not only consumption but also government production and sale of pot, while Guatemala, Colombia and several others have vowed to consider decriminalization or a serious debate about legalization. Several former presidents, including Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, have been actively campaigning for marijuana decriminalization.

“The symbolic importance of Tuesday’s vote is hard to overstate, because Washington, D.C., is not only the capital of the United States, but has been the capital of the global war on drugs,” says John Walsh, a pro-cannabis legalization expert with the Washington Office for Latin America think tank. “Now, one of the pillars of that drug war is gone.”

Walsh added that he does not expect the upcoming Republican-controlled Congress to block the pro-legalization trend. “Whether it’s because of support for legalization or because of support for states’ rights, there is support in both parties to move ahead with legalization,” he said.

My opinion: I would not like to be in the shoes of the White House anti-drug czar, or of any other U.S. official in charge of asking other countries to cooperate in U.S. marijuana eradication or interdiction programs. Regardless of what you think about marijuana legalization — I’m for it, provided it goes hand-in-hand with public campaigns to warn people of pot’s damaging effects, and that the savings from anti-marijuana programs be used for prevention and treatment of harder drugs — U.S. officials will have a hard time justifying current U.S. anti-pot programs.

Until recently, they could argue that Colorado and Washington state were isolated experiments. After Tuesday’s vote to legalize pot in the U.S. capital, that argument will no longer fly. They should try to change the four-decade-old U.S. “war on drugs,” take marijuana out of it, and focus their resources on fighting harder drugs.

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