Commentary: If California's marijuana legalization passes, expect repercussions abroad

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

MEXICO CITY — If California voters approve a proposition calling for the legalization of marijuana in the Nov. 2 midterm elections, get ready for a domino effect in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. It is not likely to be immediate, but it will be hard to stop in the near future.

Granted, the Obama administration would most likely challenge California's Proposition 19 -- it would allow adults to consume marijuana for pleasure -- in the courts if it were approved.

Most polls show that the California proposal has a better than even chance of passing.

But during a visit to Mexico, I found few people in political, academic and business circles who don't believe that passage of California's Proposition 19 would have a big impact on this country.

It will be very hard for the Mexican government to keep up its U.S.-backed anti-drug policies, especially when it comes to cracking down on the marijuana trade, they said. How can the United States ask Mexico to keep up the fight against marijuana smugglers if the drug becomes legal in California?

Ricardo Najera, spokesman for Mexico's Attorney General's Office, told me that the Mexican government will continue its military offensive against the drug cartels regardless of what happens in California, but added that approval of California's Proposition 19 would have a ``demoralizing impact'' on Mexico.

``If one country authorizes something that is prohibited in another country, it creates a very big problem for the country that is combating that particular crime,'' Najera said. ``It would discourage authorities that are working on that front.''

The last two Mexican presidents, Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox, have already come out publicly in favor of decriminalizing -- or, in Fox's case, legalizing -- marijuana production and consumption.

President Felipe Calderón's government opposes legalization, but Calderón has said he is open to holding a national debate about it. Several of the likely candidates for Mexico's 2012 presidential elections have already said they will support legalization of marijuana if California votes for it.

Marijuana sales to the United States generate about $1.5 billion a year for Mexico's drug cartels, and account for between 15 and 26 percent of the Mexican cartels' overall income, a new RAND Corporation study says.

But experts disagree on whether legalization of marijuana in California would drain Mexico's drug cartels of much of their income, or reduce their violence. This is because California is already a major producer of marijuana, and the cartels could always turn to other illegal activities -- such as kidnappings for ransom or human trafficking -- to make up for their lost marijuana income.

The Calderón government would most likely not shift toward legalization of marijuana if the drug is legalized in California because it has invested too much political capital in the war on drugs, which has claimed more than 28,000 lives over the past four years. More likely, Calderón would support moves within the United Nations to change international drug policies, many experts say.

``If California approves Proposition 19, we may see a snowball effect,'' said Luis Astorga, a drug policy researcher with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). ``Many countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal are likely to ask the United Nations to call for an international convention on marijuana, similar to other conventions that were held in 1961, 1971 and 1988. That would likely lead to a change in the world legal framework that deals with marijuana.''

My opinion: It would be a good idea to call for a U.N. Convention to establish once and for all whether -- as marijuana legalization proponents say -- marijuana is less addictive and harmful than alcohol or tobacco.

If that proves to be the case, then let's go ahead and legalize marijuana, and use the billions of dollars that are now being spent on marijuana eradication, interdiction, and repression to help fund education campaigns and treatments to fight harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

At any rate, if Proposition 19 is approved, the impact of the vote will be greater abroad than in California, where medical use of marijuana has long been legal, and possession of small amounts of the drug are barely punished with the equivalent of a speeding ticket. Pro-legalization forces around the world would get one of their biggest boosts ever.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

Related stories from McClatchy DC