Long-grass policy?

Cannabis policy moves in the US and Uruguay re-ignite calls for drugs strategies to be reviewed

Earlier this week the Mexican president Felipe Calderón joined several regional counterparts for talks. One of the topics up for discussion was the possible social implications of legalising the sale and possession of cannabis. The Mexican leader, who has two weeks left in Los Pinos before the handover of power to Enrique Peña Nieto, has spent most of his six-year term waging a brutal and costly war against drugs gangsters in his country. On Monday he spoke of another tactic: legalisation. This is a popular idea in Latin America and former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, along with ex-Brazilian leader Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have all said legalisation has to be considered.

Another country in the Americas that has thought about scrapping national penalties on the sale and possession of pot is the US – albeit at the moment on a state rather than federal level. On 6 November the vast majority of the United States was focused on a very different set of policy arguments: the tax plans; jobs measures; foreign ideas; and grand-standing of the candidates in its presidential election. But in three (safe Democrat) western states, voters were also going to the polls over the issue of legalising the sale and possession of marijuana for recreational use. Colorado and Washington passed the vote whilst Oregon rejected a move to get rid of criminal penalties for possession and cultivation of cannabis recreationally. At a federal level, the United States does not currently favour the national legalisation of pot-smoking but that position is changing in the presidential offices of some of its regional neighbours.

In Uruguay, the government has faced up to the issue of weed consumption rather than trying to deny it or only discuss further penalising it. Montevideo is set to establish a ‘National Cannabis Institute’ through which the state will regulate the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. The government has said it is determined to offer what it describes as ‘better quality’ pot than that which is currently bought and sold on the Uruguayan black market. It is a novel way to confront the issue.

Socially, the Americas seem to be driving the global discussion on drugs regulation. But there are still differences from country to country. Unlike Mexico, Uruguay is not fighting a bloody civil war, wrought with the images of decapitated men and women set against a backdrop of hillsides flaming as fields of confiscated cannabis are set alight. To say ordinary Mexicans are tired of the destruction would be an understatement. They long for a way out of the violent mess. Is that exit labelled ‘legalisation’?

Consumption within Mexico is not the issue at hand – but would more wide-ranging reform of the system in the US, particularly on a federal level (or with the compliance of federal authorities to laws passed in individual states) calm the warfare to the south? Gangs would have less reason to smuggle weed into a country where it could be grown and sold legally. Mexican politicians have tried forging secret pacts with the gangs; they have tried to crush them with the civil deployment of the armed forces. They need a new way.

The policy moves at either end of the Americas underline the international dimension to the drugs debate. Could the gangs be defeated through cross-border measures and agreements? Mexico has lost a lot of energy in the war on drugs. Surely the talks hosted by Felipe Calderón this week with the leaders of Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica demonstrate that there is everything to gain by closer neighbourly chats: talks over how to deliver a social policy blow to the gangs rather than using bribes or bombs?

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All drugged up

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is not best pleased with the US at the moment. He has accused the States of ‘attempted defamation’ during his ongoing battle with Washington to save his country’s beloved coca from renewed international prohibition.

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, chewing a coca leaf at at UN Convention (from 0:50)

Source: unitednations, YouTube, 16/03/11

What has rankled with Mr Morales is criticism of the way his government is tackling drug production. He believes the US wants to destabilise him by linking his administration to drug traffickers. But there is no smoke without fire. Last week, Rene Sanabria, Bolivia’s anti-drugs chief was arrested in Panama on charges of running a cocaine-smuggling gang at the same time as heading an 15-person anti-narcotics intelligence unit for Mr Morales.

Whilst this was a frustrating setback for Evo, he needs to cool his temper if he is to achieve an end to the global moratorium on coca leaves, in place since it was condemned by the UN in its 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Coca has been chewed for thousands of years across Bolivia and also in the highlands of Peru to combat altitude sickness, or soroche, along with other ailments and also for recreational purposes. Morales himself had a chew at a UN Drugs Convention in Vienna in 2009 (see video above).

It is a traditional pastime but a hobby that does involve the mastication of the rawest form of cocaine. And this is where the US gets nervous.

Washington wants to sort out cocaine production, the heartlands of which are in Bolivia. If it hits the war on drugs from inception point, it can get a grip on the other parts of the chain, notably Mexican trafficking and US domestic demand. But it is not convinced that Mr Morales is doing enough to cut cocaine farming. And these current problems will probably have kept La Paz off US President Obama’s schedule during his present trip to Latin America, which comes to an end on Wednesday 23 March.

Last week, the UN International Narcotics Control Board criticised the Morales government for allowing Bolivia’s coca crop to increase to 119 square miles, the largest amount of land dedicated to coca cultivation for 13 years.

But Morales maintains that he too wants to stop cocaine production and the close links to coca farming mean the line between the two is often blurred. Morales is angered by what he sees as the US-sponsored embargo of his cultural heritage and he knows that his firebrand socialism, which reaches out to Iran and Cuba, is a thorn in the side of the US.

Jihad in Juarez?

Fears are growing in Washington over organised and violent crime in Mexico but defiant rhetoric must be backed up by defiant actions.

US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, issued a bold message to the gangsters south of the border recently:

“Don’t even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response. And we’re going to continue to work with our partners in Mexico to dismantle and defeat you.”

Napolitano also elaborated on fears that Al-Qaeda could get in contact with some of the gangs in efforts to exert more destabilising influence over the region.

However, Mexican Interior Minister Francisco Blake rejected the idea that, in particular, Los Zetas could start to get cosy with the Islamist terror group. He emphasised the differences between the situations, with Al-Qaeda driven by religious interpretation and the Mexican gangs by drug-trafficking and organised crime.

Jihad or not, gang members in Mexico won’t be too bothered by this latest challenge from Washington. Words have come and gone before. There have been some major bilateral policies, such as the Merida Initiative.

However, despite the help it offers Mexico, the lack of support that scheme gives for Central American nations tarnished by inflitrating Mexican gangsters is a problem. The US obviously takes its border security very seriously and major strengthening efforts have been concentrated in frontier states, although this is not an area free from controversy.

This is an important year for Mexican politicians, with the presidential election coming up in 2012. Gangs have been extending links into Central America and the US is still nervous. Napolitano’s call could be seen as a spur in the side of the politicians, reminding them that whoever moves into Los Pinos, the presidential residence, next summer must remain focussed on the war.

The US can help and it works closely with Mexican intelligence services, but this is a nudge to remind everyone where this all started. Mexicans prefer to highlight the incessant consumer demand in the US. Finger-pointing doesn’t help and dialogue often simply puts off substantial movements; meaningful actions must continue to be the main focus of both Mexico City and Washington.

Rivers run deep in Central America

The Organisation of American States (OAS) has voted in favour of a resolution ordering Nicaragua to remove its troops from the disputed Calero Island. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have been at odds since a confusing dredging incident took place near the island in the San Juan river on 22 October.

The problems began when there were suggestions that the Nicaraguans dumped the sediment they had scooped up on the Costa Rican side of the river. In addition, authorities in San Jose, the Costa Rican capital, claimed that the dredging had affected the nature reserve on Calero Island.

The Costa Rican government maintains that Calero Island was illegally occupied by Nicaraguan forces who set up camp there during the dredging. Officials from Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, simply state that Costa Rica is kicking up a fuss about nothing because the island is their territory.

Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has stood firm. His counterpart in the row, Laura Chinchilla, has said she is ready to talk about the sovereignty issue as long as the troops leave. Ortega is saying nothing apart from stating that he does not believe the OAS is the forum to mediate the issue.

As ever in Latin America, there are shadows in the background behind each party. Venezuela and Bolivia dismissed the resolution but 24 other nations sided with Costa Rica. Nicaragua has had territorial disputes with Costa Rica before and Colombia (over the San Andres and Providencia islands).

Ortega is on the Washington radar, along with those two countries who voted against the resolution. The US likes the idea of Chinchilla ‘soft-socialist’ progressive politics, as opposed to the vociferous socialism advocated by Venezuela and Bolivia.

As we saw last year with the Honduran army’s removal of president Manuel Zelaya, events in these smaller countries of Central America can have larger ramifications across the Americas.

The OAS has now passed two resolutions to no effect. It will not advocate armed action, so as this issue gains significance (and as long as the Nicaraguans stay on Calero), expect those shadows to step forward to take a more prominent role in the debate.