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When the Mexican legislature meets this fall, it is poised to pass a marijuana legalization bill. The legislation will legalize cannabis for all uses—recreational, medical, industrial—and will create a Mexican Cannabis Institute to grant licenses for the cultivation, processing, sale, import, export, and research of marijuana. The country's president and ruling political party have both endorsed the initiative, and it has already been approved by three Senate committees.
The bill's backers hope it will curb the influence of Mexico's drug cartels. Marijuana accounts for upwards of half of the cartels' revenues, which are estimated to range between $20 and $50 billion dollars annually.
The past year has been the bloodiest yet in Mexico's war against the cartels. When security forces in the city of Culiacan tried to arrest the son of drug lord El Chapo Guzmán in October 2019, they found themselves outnumbered and outgunned by the Sinaloa Cartel. In June, gangsters ambushed Mexico City's police chief with 400 rounds of ammunition from semi-automatic rifles; in July, cartel gunmen massacred 26 residents of a drug rehab center in Guanajuato. In the past decade, Mexico has suffered 250,000 homicides because of the drug war. Whole swaths of the country are now controlled by organized crime, including the states of Guerrero, Michoacan, Morelos, and Tamaulipas. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) has killed more than 100 officials in the state of Jalisco alone, including federal, state, and local policemen, soldiers, mayors, and city council members. In June, it killed a federal judge and his wife. A U.S. Army Intelligence report estimates that over a six-year period, 150,000 of the Mexican army's 250,000 soldiers deserted, finding higher wages in the drug industry. As Mexico's president from 2000 to 2006, Vicente Fox was a dutiful foot soldier in Washington's War on Drugs. But now Fox has been tellingTime magazine that we should end prohibition "to take all the production chain out of the hands of criminals."
Drugs, Fox added, are "bad for your health, and you shouldn't take them. But, ultimately, this is the responsibility [of] citizens."
Fox has been for legalization for a while. "We should look at it as a strategy to strike at and break the economic structure that allows gangs to generate huge profits in their trade, which fuels corruption and increases their areas of power," he wrote from his ranch in 2010. A decade later, he hopes this marijuana bill will be the first step toward legalizing all drugs.
Mexico is the latest in a series of Latin American countries to reject the U.S.'s approach to drug policy. Uruguay sits on a transit route for marijuana and cocaine. When Jose Mujica was elected president there in 2009, he cast a wary eye on the drug cartels that had taken control of nearby Paraguay. He knew they could easily seize Uruguay as well.
One of Mujica's first initiatives was to legalize marijuana, anticipating that all drugs might eventually follow. Latin American presidents had held back from legalization out of fear of retaliation by the United States. But by this time, several states in the U.S. had liberalized their marijuana laws. That helped give Latin Americans cover to opt out of the drug war themselves.
In 2009, the Argentine Supreme Court declared in a landmark ruling that it was unconstitutional to prosecute citizens for possessing drugs for their personal use. And in 2012, Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, suggested that the legalization of all drugs might be in order. Two years later, his country eased its prohibitionist stance by ceasing aerial fumigation of the coca crop. Four years after that, Colombia's Constitutional Court legalized recreational cannabis.
The insurgencies that have terrorized Colombia for decades have all been fueled by the illegal drug trade, says Daniel Raisbeck, who ran for mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, in 2015 and is a senior fellow at the Reason Foundation (which publishes this magazine). In 1979, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were militarily irrelevant, with a rag-tag army of around 800 troops. But in 1982, it made the strategic decision to take part in the drug trade. The FARC very quickly became very rich. By the end of the 1990s, it had around 20,000 troops.
Raisbeck himself lost a family member when the Medellín Cartel shot down a Boeing 727 passenger aircraft in 1989— in an attempt to assassinate a presidential candidate who was supposed to be on board. "This was but one of the many senseless, ruthless, and vicious acts of terror that I remember from my childhood," Raisbeck wrote in 2014.
Pedro Trujillo, a professor of international relations at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City, lost two brothers to heroin overdoses. Trujillo thinks they might have been alive to this day if there had been clinics where his brothers could take safe, legal doses of the drug while getting addiction counseling. Trujillo proposes "legalization in combination with education about the dangers of drug use."
Latin America's wave of support for legalization comes at a time when there is growing skepticism in the United States about the drug war's efficacy, even among conservative lawmakers. In 2019, 91 Republicans joined 229 Democrats to pass legislation that gave marijuana businesses full access to the American banking system.
The drug war's beneficiaries have been armed criminals, from the FARC to the Mexican cartels to the Taliban. When Prohibition ended in 1933, so did much of the criminal violence that haunted the United States during the Prohibition era. Latin Americans have good reason to think the same thing will happen in their countries if they end narco-prohibition.
The "Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019" -- also called the MORE Act -- would officially remove cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances. It would also expunge federal marijuana convictions and arrests, and approve the allocation of resources for communities affected by the war on drugs, according to the bill's text.
"A floor vote on the bill would be the greatest federal cannabis reform accomplishment in over 80 years," the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce said in a statement Friday.
The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill, introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and co-sponsored by more than 50 lawmakers, by a vote of 24-10 in November.
"These steps are long overdue. For far too long, we have treated marijuana as a criminal justice problem instead of a matter of personal choice and public health," Nadler, the committee's chairman, said in a statement at the time. "Whatever one's views on the use of marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating users at the federal level is unwise and unjust."
The MORE Act would remove marijuana as a Schedule I substance, a category that also features other drugs, such as heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote, and leave states to regulate it.
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have already legalized cannabis for adult recreational use, and 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical cannabis.
"States have led the way -- and continue to lead the way -- but our federal laws have not kept pace with the obvious need for change," Nadler said. "We need to catch up because of public support and because it is the right thing to do."
Pew Research Center and Gallup polls last year both found that about two-thirds of Americans support legalizing marijuana, with Democrats more supportive of the move than Republicans.
The issue has gotten "greater urgency," one Democratic lawmaker said, amid calls for social justice reform during the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
"As people across the country protest racial injustices, there's even greater urgency for Congress to seize this historic opportunity and finally align our cannabis laws with what the majority of Americans support, while ensuring restorative justice," Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said in a social media post Friday sharing news on the upcoming vote.
If the bill passes the House, it would move to the Senate, where its lead sponsor is Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., the Democratic nominee for vice president. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has previously noted he does not plan to endorse the legislation.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, has spoken out in favor of decriminalizing marijuana and expunging criminal records for possession charges. Like Nadler, he thinks each state should decide whether or not to legalize it.
President Donald Trump has openly opposed changing federal marijuana laws. Earlier this month, he also suggested that if Republicans wanted to win elections, they should not put marijuana legalization on the ballot.
"The next time you run please don't put marijuana on the ballot at the same time you're running," Trump said at an Aug. 17 rally in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. "You brought out like a million people that nobody ever knew were coming out."
States with initiatives to legalize marijuana on the November ballot include Arizona and New Jersey.
Voters overwhelmingly supported Measure 110, a coup for the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, the same criminal justice reform group that backed Oregon’s successful marijuana legalization effort in 2014.
Peter Zuckerman, campaign manager for Measure 110, called the win “a big step forward.”
“Today is a huge day of celebration but the work is not over and we have a lot more work to do to win a better system for everybody,” he said.
Supporters believe U.S. drug policy has filled the country’s jails with nonviolent offenders who need treatment instead of incarceration and has disproportionately affected generations of Black people.
The Drug Policy Alliance poured more than $4 million into the decriminalization campaign, far outspending the $95,000 raised by opponents. The organization receives support from billionaire philanthropist and investor George Soros, who is on the alliance board.
Other major funders of the effort included Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who along with his wife Priscilla Chan gave $500,000, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which gave $150,000, and national ACLU, which gave another $150,000, per state campaign finance reports.
Still, the past two weeks featured a scrappy resistance led by critics, including former Gov. John Kitzhaber, who argued the measure would undermine the role of courts in getting people into drug treatment and would not guarantee much-needed treatment beds.
Last week, opponents filed a lawsuit in Washington County Circuit Court asking that all Measure 110 votes in that county be tossed because of an error on the ballots that creates confusion over the measure’s financial impact.
Jim O’Rourke, one of the leading opponents, said the measure won’t mean more treatment beds for people with substance abuse addiction.
“We are disappointed that Oregon voters have been misled into decriminalizing heroin, meth, cocaine, oxycodone," he said. “Both sides need to come together with the governor and Legislature and give the voters what they really intended -- saving lives and more treatment beds.”
The measure has three key components:
- It reduces misdemeanor drug possession to a non-criminal violation on par with a traffic offense. People with small amounts of drugs including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, LSD, psilocybin, methadone and oxycodone will get a ticket and face a $100 fine or have the option of being screened for a substance abuse disorder. - It reduces penalties for what are now felony drug possession cases, which involve larger quantities. Under Measure 110, most of those offenses will be misdemeanors.
- It funnels millions in marijuana tax revenue toward what it calls Addiction Recovery Centers, where people can be screened and directed to treatment options. Those tax dollars will also go to a Drug Treatment and Recovery Services Fund overseen by the state that could be used to pay for treatment, housing or other programs designed to address addiction. -- Noelle Crombie; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie
The 2020 election was an important milestone in unraveling America's disastrous war on drugs. Across the country, by overwhelming margins, voters came out for legalizing marijuana, removing criminal penalties for psychedelic use, and treating drug addiction as a public health rather than a criminal concern.
The biggest victory was in Oregon, where voters overwhelmingly approved Measure 110, making it the first state to eliminate the possibility of jail time for possessing small amounts of heroin, cocaine, oxycodone, and every other narcotic. Instead, violators could be hit with at most a $100 fine.
"It's a really bold experiment," says Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason. "Arresting people and locking them up for using drugs is not very effective." The initiative also paved the way for setting up education treatment recovery programs and using the tax revenue from the marijuana market to fund it.
Voters Oregon approved Measure 109, making it the first state to legalize psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration granted psilocybin " breakthrough therapy" status for treatment-resistant depression.
In Washington, D.C., voters opted by a margin of 3 to 1 to make the use, possession, and cultivation of entheogenic plants and fungi, such as psilocybin mushrooms, law enforcers' lowest priority.
"It does not change law in any way. It simply says, 'Look…we, the people, think that the police and the district attorneys should stop arresting and prosecuting people for psychedelic plants. So please do that," says Moore.
Mississippi, Arizona, South Dakota, New Jersey, and Montana all passed initiatives allowing marijuana to be sold for either medical or recreational use.
Moore says that there's a danger that some of the legal structures established by these ballot measures, such as in Arizona, will repeat the mistakes of other states, where regulated cartels dominate.
"It really is designed to give the existing medical marijuana providers control of the market and not let anybody else into the market, which is kind of crazy," says Moore.
But a clear takeaway from the 2020 election is that the American public has had enough of the government locking people in cages for putting mind-altering substances into their own bodies. The tragic war on drugs is finally coming to an end.
Produced, written, and edited by Regan Taylor. Motion graphics by Lex Villena, Isaac Reese, and Ian Keyser.
Music Credits: "Mama—Instrumental Version" by Phototaxis, "Hello 6 am" by Mylar Melodies.