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The Vote on Drugs

This article was first published by The Student Journals

Against the plethora of speculation over the identity of America’s next President, it took a more-than-casual interest in US politics to glean any more detail about what happened on Election Day. Peeping out from lefty campaigning websites and freelance journalists’ columns, there emerged a small detail that may in fact turn out to be a turning point in the USA’s longest-running war: the War on Drugs. On Tuesday, November 6th the states of Colorado and Washington voted in favour of legalising, regulating and taxing marijuana.

Two states. Marijuana. It may seem a little innocuous compared to, say, Obamacare, or negotiations with Iran. But consider that the War on Drugs has killed at very least sixty-thousand people since 2006 in Mexico alone, and small pieces of legislature like this suddenly take on a new relevance. In Mexico, President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto was sent scurrying to a press conference by the events in the US, sending a senior aide to speak of the need to “review” Mexico-US security policy.

Mexico gets the bad press – Guatemala and El Salvador less so, despite suffering appalling levels of drug-related violence. In Honduras, a coup in 2009 derailed the country’s political system. Drug cartels have capitalised on the breakdown of security, and their contribution to almost indiscriminate trafficking and violence cannot be underestimated. The situation is so severe that there are warnings the country is on the way to becoming failed state. How soon before the Caribbean, a smuggler’s paradise of un-guardable borders and airstrips, becomes the site of the next turf war? The bodies are now piling up too high to be dismissed as unfortunate collateral. Earlier this year, the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala issued a bold statement demanding that the War on Drugs be brought under review. Uruguay is currently processing a bill legalising the production and sale of marijuana. These are actions which had previously been politically unthinkable.

In Europe, it is generally accepted that Portugal’s decision in 2001 to treat drugs as a health and safety issue rather than a law and order one has been a resounding success, if kept strangely quiet. Drug use there did rise once it was no longer illegal, but mortalities, petty crime and youth use dropped. By 2011, a decade after decriminalisation, the number of hard drug users in Portugal had halved.

Here in the UK, just last month there was a call for decriminalisation from a group of scientists, police officers and research academics who had recently concluded a six-year-long study into Britain’s drug laws. Britain in the 1980s held a relatively progressive stance towards drugs and initiated systems of needle exchanges, treatment and rehabilitation programmes. Today, it seems to be lagging, going so far as preventing medical research into the potential capacity of psychedelics to help those suffering from depression or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The spread of those two conditions shows no sign of slowing – saying that researchers may not continue their promising studies with ecstasy or MDMA because the substances are prohibited is a clear example of a complete loss of sensible context. Thinking on drugs has instead solidified into a truism that “drugs are bad and must therefore be illegal.”

The votes of Colorado and Washington may not, at the moment, mean very much: there’s still a good chance that legal challenges and/or federal policy may scupper these two states’ plans. But considering that just two years ago California, one of the most liberal states in the US, failed to vote in favour of legalization, this step shows that the political and social attitude towards drugs is changing. History looks back on the Prohibition of early twentieth-century America and says, “wow, that was a bad idea”; one day, it will do the same to the War on Drugs on both sides of the Atlantic. Let us hope, with the tentative steps in Colorado and Washington, the growing confidence of Latin America, and increasing attention on the counterproductive and outdated drug laws in Europe, that that day is sooner rather than later.