A lot of north Americans will get high on last night’s vote – not because they are celebrating the re-election of Barack Obama as president, but following the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. In defiance of federal law, they have now become the first US states to legalise the possession and sale of marijuana for recreational use. Although Oregon voters rejected the amendment, it’s a ground-breaking move which will change the tone of the debate on international drugs policy, test the balance of power between US states and the Federal Government, and affect Mexican security.
Medical-use cannabis is already legal in several US states. What makes Amendment 64 significant is that it would remove the prohibition on the commercial production of cannabis. In Colorado, pot can now in theory be legally sold and taxed at state-licensed stores in a system similar to alcohol sales. Personal possession of up to 28 grams (1 oz) will be legal for anyone at least 21 years old.
To get a bead on what this might mean, this is further than Netherlands has gone. There, contrary to common perception, it is only the retail sale of 5 grams that is legal. Production and wholesale remains illegal, and the law is vigorously enforced. That is why the price of pot in Amsterdam “coffee shops” is “little different than the price in US dispensaries,” as the authors of “Marijuana legalisation: what everyone needs to know”, argue here.
The move will certainly reverberate in Latin America, perhaps even more than the result of the presidential election. Several countries have been pushing for a new approach on drugs policy; Uruguay is considering cannabis legalisation too.
The biggest likely impact, though, is likely to be in Mexico. Last week, the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, a respected think tank, estimated that legal US production of cannabis supplied to the US’s $15-30bn a year cannabis market, could cut the earnings of Mexican-based drugs cartels by up to 30 per cent. The cartels currently earn some $6bn a year from drug smuggling, of which low-potency cannabis accounts for $2bn. US cannabis, often grown under careful conditions, tends to be far more potent. Following legalisation, it would also be cheaper. However you look at it, the Rocky Mountain high just got higher.
Of course, all this assumes Washington does not crackdown on the state initiatives. As Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who opposed the move, said: “the voters have spoken and we have to respect their will.” However, “federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly.”