The costs of the drug war in Mexico have been high the last four years. More than 28,000 have been killed; over $10 billion has been spent; a climate of lawlessness and crime has been created. President Felipe Calderón has taken a hard stance against Mexican drug cartels, but at a dear price. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have praised Calderón for his efforts but Mexico’s president now sees the possibility of an unbalanced drug war across the border if Californians vote in favor of Proposition 19 on November 2, 2010. The proposition would legalize production and the consumption of marijuana in the state.
If passed, Prop 19 will allow anyone 21 and older to cultivate marijuana on a 5-foot-by-5-foot plot and possess up to an ounce. It would permit municipalities to tax and regulate sales, though counties will have the choice to opt in. Proponents of the initiative estimate it will raise $1.3 billion annually in revenues for the bankrupt state, while also freeing up police and prison resources for more serious crimes.
Prop 19 has brought the issue of legalization to prominence in Mexico. Many well-known Mexican figures suggest legalization of marijuana in their own country would improve conditions and lessen violence, including former president Vicente Fox. But President Calderón staunchly opposes legalization in Mexico.
President Calderón calls Prop 19 inconsistent with U.S. drug policy and points to it as further evidence that the U.S. is not doing enough to bring its illicit drug market under control. The U.S. Department of Justice has said it will continue to prosecute those who violate federal laws which prohibit marijuana possession, regardless of what California voters decide.
There is little doubt that the drug policies of Mexico and the U.S. are interconnected — drugs produced in Mexico are transported across the border and consumed by Americans. However, if passed, advocates of Prop 19 believe legalization will actually hurt drug cartels by eliminating the need for out-of-state suppliers. A RAND Corporation study released in July predicted the price of marijuana could crash by as much as 80 percent if California legalizes domestic production. Diminishing the price of marijuana by such a significant margin could deal a major blow to Mexican producers.
How Prop 19 will affect drug cartels profits is yet to be seen, though. A more recent October study by RAND found that passing Prop 19 would not significantly reduce drug revenues to Mexican drug cartels. Eliminating the California market would reduce cartels’ revenue by only 2 to 4 percent, partly because much of the marijuana consumed in California is already grown in the state. The study did suggest that if low-cost, high-quality California marijuana was smuggled across the U.S., Mexican drug cartels could lose 20 percent of their income from exports. The unfortunate reality is that if drug cartels are faced with a potential hit in the marijuana export market, they will likely respond by seeking out other types of business to continue to earn returns. The drug cartels have diverse means for making profits and their resourcefulness cannot be underestimated.
President Calderón believes the only solution to drug violence will come from a coordinated Mexico-U.S. approach to drug use and drug trafficking. At a recent debate, he said, “If there is not an international approach, Mexico will pay the costs and will get none of the benefits. The price of drugs is not determined by Mexico. The price of drugs is determined by the consumers in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.”
Should Prop 19 pass in California, the possible consequences for Mexico are both good and bad. On the one hand, President Calderón will have greater leverage over the U.S. government in pressing for changes to existing drug policies since it reflects poorly on the U.S. that one of its own states will be in violation of federal law. On the other hand, President Calderón will have the uncomfortable job of explaining to Mexican citizens continued aggressive tactics against drug cartels, even as his neighbors to the north freely indulge in the lucrative drugs that have caused so much violence in Mexico.
Jorge Castañeda, Foreign Minister under former President Fox and a promoter of legalization in Mexico, said it best: “It is going to be impossible to ask Mexican society to put up with the number of lives at risk and the violence for a fight that Americans, or at least Californians, [will] have said they don’t want to fight anymore.”
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