Proposition 19 Is a Vote Heard ‘Round the World

The world will be watching as Californians go to the polls on Tuesday and vote on Proposition 19, which would legalize and regulate marijuana in that state. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, however, it has already sparked an intense international debate, particularly in Latin America where the U.S. has long waged its “war on drugs.” Drug war critics and even some who have supported the U.S. approach to date are asking how the U.S. government can continue to call on Latin American governments to implement harsh drug control policies when at least some of those policies are being called into question in the United States itself.

If passed, Prop 19 would allow those over 21 to possess and cultivate small quantities of marijuana for personal use. Local governments would determine how to regulate its sale, production and taxation. Its immediate impact – in a state where possession of small amounts of marijuana is already the equivalent of a traffic violation – would likely be less than its proponents claim. However, its symbolic importance abroad cannot be under-estimated.

Prop 19 has already sparked intense criticism, support – and some confusion. A recent declaration by leaders of key Latin American countries calls for “consistent and congruent” drug policies on the part of consuming nations, pointing out that, “They cannot support criminalizing these activities in this or that country, while at the same time (supporting) the open or veiled legalization of the production and consumption of drugs in their own territories.”

Presidents such as Mexico’s Felipe Calderón and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla have spoken out against Prop 19. Even Russian “drug czar,” Viktor Ivanov, got into the act, going to Los Angeles where he met with Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sheriff Leroy Baca to “conduct a campaign against legalizing marijuana in California.” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has criticized Prop 19, but has also hinted that its victory could lead to calls for a new approach: “If we don’t act consistently in this matter, if all we’re doing is sending our citizens to prison while in other latitudes the market is legalized, then we should ask ourselves: Isn’t it time to revise the global strategy towards drugs?”

Others have openly supported Prop 19 and cannabis decriminalization more broadly. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, headed by former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), called for serious consideration for decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use. Its February 2009 report sparked a region-wide debate on the issue that has only intensified since Prop 19 was put on the California ballot.

More recently, Argentine drug policy expert, Juan Tokatlian, bluntly stated: “One way to begin the domestic dismantling of the ‘war on drugs’ rationale and to signal to the world that the United States is willing to initiate a realistic, frank and effective debate on narcotics is to support Proposition 19, on which Californians will vote on 2 November…This would represent a real advance in dealing seriously and effectively with the narcotics issue – and a bold new step towards broadening the global debate on the effectiveness, or otherwise, of drug prohibition.”

Since 1970, more than 20 million people in the United States have been arrested for cannabis possession; while such statistics are not available for Latin America, many analysts point out that excessively harsh drug laws are one of the primary reasons for the region’s crisis of prison over-crowding. The impact of marijuana use on public health and society more broadly is minimal – far less than alcohol or tobacco – but the consequences of being arrested with it can be devastating for individuals and their families, leading to loss of employment and educational opportunities and even imprisonment. Decriminalizing the possession of marijuana for personal use is one leap forward in reforming misguided and ineffective drug laws across the hemisphere.

The likely outcome of Tuesday’s vote on Prop 19 is too close to call. But regardless of the final results, the genie has been let out of the bottle. As succinctly pointed out by WOLA’s John Walsh: “So whatever Californians decide on November 2, the fact that literally millions of voters will be considering an approach to marijuana that is quite distinct from prohibition is already invigorating the drug policy debate, usefully bringing to the fore basic questions about the suitability of the global prohibition framework for marijuana. ”

Prop 19 has furthered an international debate on alternatives for regulating cannabis that will no doubt continue and even expand after the polls close on November 2.