Shifts in Policies of War on Drugs in the Americas

Ashley Harshaw, Vol. 37 Associate Editor

The Supreme Court of Mexico, in a 4 to 1 vote, has declared that four plaintiffs – members of a cannabis club – are allowed to grow, transport and use marijuana for recreational purposes. This marks the latest in a series of shifts in the Americas away from past stringent policies of the War on Drugs. Although the decision does not legalize marijuana across Mexico, basing the decision on human rights grounds provides a powerful precedent for a range of challenges to restrictive drug use laws. This precedent could set into motion significant changes in drug policy not only in Mexico, but also across the region more broadly.[1]

Since the Nixon administration declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971, the U.S. government has pressured Latin American nations to enforce strict prohibition on opium, coca and marijuana crops with aerial spraying and military operations. The Americas have largely continued with this prohibitionist approach into the 21st century.[2] In September 2014, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a report sharply criticizing the U.S. led global War on Drugs.[3] The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on punitive drug law enforcement, only to result in violence, excessive incarceration, and, ultimately, failure to solve the problem.[4]

Because of the destructive consequences of the hardline policies promulgated by the U.S., and recognizing that the crackdown on drugs has failed to stifle illegal consumption and trade, many countries throughout Latin America have started to take a different route. Some such changes in drug policy include decriminalizing the use of marijuana and scaling back on laws pertaining to possession of marijuana and other drugs.

Changing drug policy could have particularly large repercussions in the context of Mexico, which has suffered one of the worst drug wars in world history. According to the Mexican government, more than 83,000 people between 2007 and 2014 have been killed by cartels and by security forces fighting them.[5] Further, Mexico is the biggest narcotics supplier to users in the U.S., according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.[6]

Relieving the international pressure on producer countries is imperative to a more effective international approach to drugs. When demand for marijuana, cocaine and other illicit substances in the U.S. remains high, but the supply is low (as people in the U.S. have been prohibited from producing), the drug cartels step up and produce. Through this inadvertent scheme, the U.S., a wealthy, “consumer” country, has essentially been shrugging drug war costs off onto poor Latin American countries[7] – violence proliferates in illegal industries.

Latin America’s caving in to pressure from developed countries has resulted in “criminalization of politics and politicization of crime,” as democratic institutions have been infiltrated by organized crime, and influencing the corruption of public servants, the judicial system, governments, and especially the police.[8] If there is no prohibition of production in the U.S., however, prices drop, and cartels might “get out of the game.”

Drug laws need be reformed to address these issues underlying the reality of the illegal drug market. Money and other resources (medical, law enforcement, etc.) that have been spent in War on Drugs efforts would be much better allocated towards programs on social and economic development, education and treatment. For example, instead of trying to eradicate marijuana or coca crops – a major tool in the American-backed anti-drug campaign – which merely pushes cultivation areas from one region to the other, new laws should focus resources on going after big traffickers and treating addicts.[9] Further, drug laws, as has been Portugal’s approach since 2001, with much success[10], should handle drug abuse as a health issue rather than a crime to be punished with stiff jail sentences. It is inefficient and ineffective to clog up courts and prisons with cases of small-time users.

Several countries in the Western Hemisphere have taken this into account in retreating from aggressive prohibitionist drug policies. It is legal to use marijuana with varying restrictions in Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay.[11] In 2009, both Mexico and Argentina passed laws that decriminalized possession of small amounts of several drugs, and although the narcotics were still illegal, those found with the drugs would be sent to rehab centers, rather than fined or imprisoned.[12] Chile is preparing to decriminalize marijuana, having passed legislation in its Chamber of Deputies,[13] and it gathered its first harvest of medical marijuana this year.[14] Bolivia allows traditional uses of coca.[15]

Uruguay represents a trailblazer in Latin American drug policy; in December 2013, it became the first country in the world to completely legalize marijuana. It reasoned that if the government regulated the already existing market, it would be seizing those revenues from illegal drug dealers. Former President of Uruguay José Mujica expressed that it is a health and public safety issue that should be addressed by government action as such.[16]

Notably, the U.S. itself seems to be backing down from the stance it has been maintaining for the past half a century. Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana in 2012, followed by Alaska, Washington, D.C. and Oregon in 2015, with many other states permitting medical marijuana.[17]

Although Mexico’s Supreme Court decision from this month goes against U.N. drug treaties, which require signatory countries to crack down on marijuana and other substances, the U.N. has turned a blind eye to the U.S. states and Uruguay legalizing cannabis.[18] Diplomats will come together at the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016 to rethink international and domestic drug policy. Though it remains to be seen whether legalizing various substances will significantly reduce drug violence or weaken the gangs, it is clear that the existing laws are not effective in solving these problems. Learning from the experience thus far of the U.S. states and Latin American countries that have in some form legalized certain drugs, perhaps the U.N. will be able to shape its drug control regime to actually accomplish its ultimate goal of bettering the health and welfare of humankind.[19]


[1] Ioan Grillo, Mexico’s Marijuana Ruling Shakes Up Drug Policy, Time (Nov. 4, 2015), http://time.com/4100747/mexicos-marijuana-ruling-shakes-up-drug-policy/.

[2] Id.

[3] Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work, Global Commission on Drug Policy (Sept. 2014), http://www.gcdpsummary2014.com/#executive-summary.

[4] Natalie Southwick, The War on Drugs is a Failure, and Legalization May be the Answer, Latin Correspondent (Sept. 10, 2014), http://latincorrespondent.com

/2014/09/new-report-war-on-drugs-failure-promotes-decriminalization-legalization/.

[5] Grillo, supra note 1.

[6] Id.

[7] See Cathy Reisenwitz, US Marijuana Legalization Already Weakening Mexican Cartels, Violence Expected to Decline, Townhall (Aug. 11, 2014), http://townhall.com/columnists/cathyreisenwitz/2014/08/11/us-marijuana-legalization-already-weakening-mexican-cartels-violence-expected-to-decline-n1876088/page/full.

[8] Id.

[9] See Luis Andres Henao, Latin America Rejects Old U.S. Approach in Drugs War, Reuters (Jan. 29, 2010), http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/01/29/us-drugs-latinamerica-idUSTRE60S4MD20100129.

[10] See Zeeshan Aleem, 14 Years After Decriminalizing All Drugs, Here’s What Portugal Looks Like, Policy Mic (Feb. 11, 2015), http://mic.com/articles/110344/14-years-after-portugal-decriminalized-all-drugs-here-s-what-s-happening#.sY8c1ecEv.

[11] Olivia Marple, Chile Considers Cannabis Decriminalization, Highlights a Growing Movement in Latin America, Council on Hemispheric Affairs (Aug. 18, 2015), http://www.coha.org/chile-considers-cannabis-decriminalization-highlights-a-growing-movement-in-latin-america/.

[12] Grillo, supra note 1.

[13] Olivia Marple, Chile is About to Decriminalize Marijuana, Alternet (Aug. 21, 2015), http://www.alternet.org/drugs/chile-decriminalize-marijuana.

[14] Elisabeth Malkin and Azam Ahmed, Ruling in Mexico Sets Into Motion Legal Marijuana, N.Y. Times (Nov. 4, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/ world/americas/mexico-supreme-court-marijuana-ruling.html?ref=world.

[15] Id.

[16] Tom McKay, One Year After Uruguay Legalized Marijuana, Here’s What It’s Become, World Mic (Dec. 9, 2014), http://mic.com/articles/106094/one-year-after-uruguay-legalized-marijuana-here-s-what-it-s-become.

[17] See State Marijuana Laws Map, Governing (June 19, 2015), http://www.governing. com/gov-data/state-marijuana-laws-map-medical-recreational.html.

[18] Grillo, supra note 1.

[19] See supra note 3.