How California's Pot Proposition Is Agitating Latin America

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Luis Robayo / AFP / Getty Images

Police officers guard seized packages of marijuana in Santander de Quilichao in Colombia's department of Cauca

What was Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos smoking? Colombia has long been an obedient lieutenant in the U.S.-led war on drugs, yet there was Santos musing out loud — at a presidential summit, of all places — about the possibility of exporting bales of marijuana to California dopers. "I would like to know," he said on Oct. 26, "if the eighth-largest economy in the world and a state that's famous for high technology, movies and fine wine, will permit marijuana imports?"

It turns out that Santos (a nonsmoker, by the way) was simply turning up the sarcasm ahead of Tuesday's referendum in California on legalizing marijuana. His summit colleagues had some acid comments of their own. Mexican President Felipe Calderón accused the U.S. of trying to criminalize and legalize drugs at the same time. Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla decried U.S. drug policy as "contradictory."

These leaders have good reason to be frustrated. For decades, Washington has demanded that Latin American fall in behind its hard-line prohibitionist approach to cocaine, heroin and marijuana. But now, many U.S. states are taking a softer stance. In January, New Jersey became the 14th state to approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes. On Tuesday, Californians could go a dramatic step further. If approved, Proposition 19 would legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 and over and allow California cities and counties to regulate and tax cannabis sales.

For Latin Americans accustomed to decades of drug double standards, Prop 19 is more mind-bending smoke blowing in from the north. Augusto Pérez, the former head of the Colombian government's drug-abuse prevention program, recalled how his nation came under ferocious pressure from Washington to eradicate its marijuana crop in the 1970s. The Colombians complied only to watch cannabis become a multibillion-dollar illicit industry in California. Later, at Washington's behest, Colombia, Mexico and Peru spent billions and sacrificed thousands of lives fighting cocaine cartels, whose main customers are U.S. drug users.

Yet none of this seems to be working. It may not be as bad as that infamous headline in the fake newspaper the Onion would have you believe — "Drugs win drug war" — but the real news is almost as dreary. Major cartels have been destroyed in Colombia but dozens of so-called micro-cartels have picked up the slack. The biggest cocaine syndicates now operate out of Mexico, where 30,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence over the past four years. Through it all, drugs have remained cheap, potent and plentiful on U.S. streets. That's why Santos suggested to his fellow Presidents at last week's summit in Cartagena, Colombia, that they should turn the page. "If all we are doing is sending our citizens to prison while elsewhere drugs are legalized," he said, "we must ask ourselves, Isn't it time to revise the global strategy against drugs?"

The answer, according to a growing number of high-profile and very mainstream advocates in Latin America, is yes. "We should consider legalizing the production, sale and distribution of drugs," former Mexican President Vicente Fox wrote on his blog in August. He went on to argue that the very fact that drugs are illegal makes them more lethal. "Legalization does not mean that drugs are good," Fox wrote. "But we have to see it as a strategy to weaken and break the economic system that allows cartels to make huge profits, which in turn increases their power and capacity to corrupt."

Fox's predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, teamed up with former Presidents from Brazil and Colombia to produce a report last year calling for the decriminalization of marijuana. Instead of plowing the sea by trying to eliminate drugs, they recommended so-called harm-reduction policies, like treatment and needle-exchange programs, to reduce the damage caused by illegal narcotics.

One of the report's authors is César Gaviria, who was Colombia's President when the country suffered a wave of car bombs and murders orchestrated by cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. For all the blood and treasure his American-backed government spent on gunning down Escobar in 1993, Gaviria told TIME, "U.S. drug policy has failed. So please, change it. Don't force us to sacrifice thousands of lives for a strategy that doesn't work simply because American politicians lack the courage to change course."

But, while lawmakers from Mexico to Argentina to Portugal are passing more permissive drug laws, the subject remains taboo in the U.S. Congress. That's because a quarter-century after the "Just Say No" hysteria of the Reagan years, American politicians still fear being labeled soft on drugs, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the New York City–based Drug Policy Alliance, which supports the California referendum. Instead, nearly all the movement on drug laws has come from cash-strapped state governments anxious to empty their prisons of nonviolent drug offenders and — at least in the case of California — replenish their coffers by taxing pot sales that are going to happen whether they're legal or not. State officials estimate California could collect about $1.3 billion annually in tax revenue from marijuana.

The latest California polls show opponents of the referendum with a slight lead over supporters. But if it does squeak through, the new law would place the White House in an embarrassing position overseas. John Walsh, of the Washington Office on Latin America, points out that the U.S. government was the primary architect of the global drug-prohibition regime, embodied in three U.N. treaties beginning with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs — a regime that outlaws marijuana.

"Can you imagine what I am going to say to our [people] in Colombia that grow marijuana if the referendum in California is approved?" Santos asked during a recent interview with TIME. "It would be very difficult for the U.S. to continue saying that the war on drugs is marvelous, but for [its] richest state, it's legal to produce and consume [marijuana]." It would also lead to more catcalls from America's weary drug-war partners in Latin America. A political cartoon in the Bogotá daily El Tiempo sums up the region's thinking: it shows an impoverished Colombian marijuana farmer being clubbed by a glassy-eyed, joint-smoking Uncle Sam.