Mexico City - The legalisation of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, which will allow the drug to be taxed and regulated, in two US states will prompt debate on anti-drug policies in Mexico as well, and on the coordination of strategies between the two countries, experts say.
"The least bad option is legalisation,"Jorge Chabat, at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), said. "It will have an impact on the way prohibition is designed, because there will be a cascade effect, and we'll see changes very soon.”
On election day in the US Tuesday, Colorado and Washington became the first states to approve referendums for the legalisation of marijuana - up to one ounce for personal use for adults 21 and over.
Voters in Oregon rejected a similar initiative, while Massachusetts became the eighteenth US state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to allow medical use of marijuana.
In Colorado and Washington, the production, possession and distribution of marijuana will now be regulated, and licensed growers will be able to sell up to one ounce to adults.
Washington will establish a system of state-licensed marijuana growers, processors and retail stores, and the state liquor control board will levy a 25 per cent sales tax on the drug.
The tax revenue collected on marijuana sales in the two states will go to state and local budgets, substance abuse and prevention programmes, research, education, healthcare and other areas.
Mexico looks on with interest
"Legalisation doesn't solve the problem, because cocaine generates the biggest profits," Jorge Javier Romero, a professor at the department of politics and culture in the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City, said. "It has to be approached as a foreign policy issue, because Mexico doesn't have a drug use problem - it's the United States that has a drug abuse problem.”
Approximately 30 million of the United States' 312 million inhabitants use a total of 3,700 tons of marijuana a year, which has a retail value of $15 to $30bn, according to the report "Si los vecinos legalizan" (If the neighbours legalise), produced by Alejandro Hope and Eduardo Clark of the non-governmental Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO).
"The legalisation of drugs in the United States would be the most significant structural clash that drug trafficking has experienced in a generation…and would transform the terms of the debate on drugs. "
- IMCO study
The study says that, of the marijuana consumed in the United States, 40 to 67 per cent comes from Mexico, where drug cartels take in some $2bn dollars a year from trafficking the drug, which is mainly grown in western and southern states.
Mexico is a graphic illustration of the mistaken approach used in the repressive drug control policies backed by the US government, according to the experts.
The drug war launched when conservative President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 put thousands of soldiers on the streets. But the catastrophic results of the strategy include at least 90,000 people killed, 10,000 missing, and 250,000 forced to flee their homes, according to the estimates of human rights groups.
The legalisation of drugs in the United States "would be the most significant structural clash that drug trafficking has experienced in a generation…and would transform the terms of the debate on drugs,"says the IMCO study.
The administration of reelected President Barack Obama can challenge the state referendums in court, but has not announced plans to do so.
"Even if only one US state were to approve legalisation, the decision would reverberate throughout the hemisphere, where the drug policy debate has opened up dramatically," John Walsh, the drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, wrote in the article "Taking the Initiative on Legal Marijuana" before the elections.
"The new government could copy what will be done" in the US states that have legalised marijuana use, said Chabat, referring to the future administration of Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña, of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, who takes office on December 1.
Peña Nieto has talked about a change in law enforcement strategies, but without giving details.
Regulating the trade
The IMCO study estimates that as a result of the legalisation of marijuana, Mexico's criminal organisations will lose 36.5 per cent of the market in the northwestern state of Washington, representing $1.4bn a year, and 37.9 per cent of the market in the western state of Colorado, also representing $1.4bn.
The hardest hit will be the Sinaloa Cartel, considered Mexico's most powerful organised crime group, and the Los Caballeros Templarios - two of the cartels disputing the smuggling routes to the lucrative US market.
"Mexico's role as a dike,"imposed by the United States with a view to making it a "bulwark against the transit of drugs," must be reviewed, said Romero, who argued that "the revenue flows of drug trafficking organisations have to be stopped, and that is done by regulating the trade.”
According to IMCO, the Mexican government should not legalise the production and sale of marijuana until US federal laws on the matter have been clearly defined.
It also recommends that alternative development programmes be implemented in the regions where marijuana is grown in Mexico, and calls for guarding against potential "reverse trafficking"of drugs, from the United States to Mexico.
The legalisation of production and sales of marijuana in Colorado and Washington will take time, because the two states will have to create the necessary regulations and infrastructure in the first half of 2013.
"The consequences of a state-level vote in favour of legalisation will depend on real-world implementation, and that will in turn depend on how the federal government responds to the state action and to the specifics of the state's new regulatory design," Walsh wrote.
A version of this article was first published by Inter Press Service news agency (IPS).