The question of whether legalizing drugs would help reduce the killings in Mexico has made front page news this week and is causing unprecedented debate around the world.
Last week, former Mexican President Vicente Fox called on his country “to legalize the production, distribution and sale of drugs” as the best way to weaken the drug cartels.
Acknowledging that “radical prohibition strategies have never worked,” Fox’s recommendation echoes another former president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, as well as past presidents of Colombia and Brazil, who last year issued a ringing condemnation of the failed war on drugs, in favor of alternatives that include the removal of legal penalties for marijuana possession.
This latest endorsement of legalization also comes on the heels of current Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s own announcement that, while he opposes legalization, he nevertheless supports an open debate about ending prohibition — the root cause of the violence in Mexico that has now claimed over 28,000 lives.
Sadly, however, legalization is not even part of the policy dialogue in D.C. In fact, the U.S. drug czar has repeatedly said it’s not even part of his or President Obama’s “vocabulary.”
Yet despite Washington’s reticence to engage the topic, the debate about legalization is taking place in many communities throughout the U.S. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, like Calderon, has called for a debate about marijuana legalization, a proposal that Californians will vote on in November. In 2009, the City Council of El Paso, Texas — directly across the border from Ciudad Juarez, the world’s deadliest city and ground zero in Mexico’s drug war — passed a resolution “supporting an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.”
President Calderon’s openness to debating legalization comes amid new recognition that the cartels are not just killing each other, or members of the government, or innocent civilians – they are openly challenging the Mexican state and eroding its democratic institutions.
Signs of this bleak reality abound in news reports from Mexico: whole portions of the country where the cartels’ influence exceeds the government’s; the silencing (through intimidation, kidnapping and murder) of national and international journalists; the assassination or bribery of local, state and national politicians or law enforcement officers; a broken criminal justice system that allows the cartels to operate with impunity; and the widespread violation of civil and human rights by the army, sent into the streets to fight the cartels since 2006. These are not the conditions of a stable democracy — or a successful counternarcotics strategy.
It is heartening that Calderon, the Mexican congress and members of civil society have begun a serious discussion about changing course and pursuing legalization — and not just of marijuana, but of all drugs.
Unfortunately, as the AP writes, “Just about everyone agrees Mexico probably can’t or won’t legalize on its own.” In other words, they need our help. But in stark contrast to the open discussion going on to the south, the topic remains taboo in the U.S.
It’s time for the Obama Administration to follow the lead of Mexico — and its own citizens — and consider real alternatives to its failed drug war policies. It is our moral imperative to join Mexico in this important debate.
DANIEL ROBELO is a research associate at the Drug Policy Alliance’s legal office in Berkeley, California.