Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C. have become the latest places in the US to legalize marijuana, providing another push towards drug policy reform in the hemisphere and prompting questions over what these changes could mean for organized crime in Latin America.

The panel of high-profile political figures who make up the Global Commission on Drug Policy said earlier this year that the global taboo around discussing drug policy reform has been “broken.” The election results in the US — including California, where voters approved an initiative that reduces penalties for drug crimes — could prompt more prominent figures across Latin America to speak out on alternative ways to approach the drug issue.  

Here are three ways that these latest reforms in the US could impact its neighbors further South: 

1. It makes it harder for the US to push for a more traditional approach to the so-called “drug war.” William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said as much in a press conference some weeks ago at the United Nations. “How could I, a representative of the government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the 50 states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?” he said at the time. 

In an e-mail to InSight Crime, Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Sanho Tree noted that with more states passing US drug reform laws, foreign governments no longer see a “strong domestic consensus” when it comes to drug policy. 

“Since our own citizens are coming out against the drug war on a transpartisan basis, it erodes the legitimacy of our drug war bureaucracy overseas,” he wrote.

John Walsh, the Senior Associate for Drug Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, echoed Tree’s remarks.

“The US is no longer in the position it once was as the international drug policeman,” he said. “If the US tries to denounce other countries for trying to legalize marijuana, their leaders can easily accuse the US of hypocrisy.”

2. Legal marijuana in the US could hit Mexico criminal groups hard and prompt them to rely more on heroin or methamphetamine exports. Crime analyst Alejandro Hope has previously hypothesized how a chain of marijuana reform in US could devastate Mexican suppliers and prompt a new model of regulation in Mexico. However, the issue of harder drugs — methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine — would remain. 

Alejandro Madrazo, a law professor and drug policy expert at Mexican research center CIDE, told InSight Crime that these recent reforms in the US could accelerate trends already evident in Mexico, including the increased importance of poppy production and heroin production for criminal groups. Heroin use is booming in the US — and to a certain extent in Mexico as well — evidence that Mexican drug traffickers are increasingly relying on this product in order to turn a profit. 

Meanwhile, Mexico criminal groups producing methamphetamine at an industrial scale continue to impact states across the US. It’s possible this could be exacerbated if Mexico marijuana suppliers are impacted. One study in 2012 calculated that if marijuana became legal in three US states, Mexican cartels could see their profits drop by up to 30 percent

But when it comes to policy reform within Mexico, Madrazo said that may depend somewhat on whether California votes on the issue in 2016. “California is very close to Mexico both physically and culturally and so it carries particular symbolic weight in the political imagination,” he said. The reforms in Oregon and elsewhere created “pressure, but were unlikely to be the tipping point yet.”

3. Popular support for marijuana reform in the US provides a contrast to some Latin American countries, where majority popular opinion doesn’t yet favor legalization. In Uruguay, for example, where legalization of consumption and production is underway, polls consistently show that the majority of the population opposes the country’s landmark laws. 

“The state level-initiatives have really pushed the issue forward in the United States,” said Walsh. “It’s a popular issue in that sense, so the political leaders are playing catch-up for the most part… In Latin America, and other countries where there is a vigorous debate over drug policy, it tends to be elite-led, rather than a popular opinion question.”

What Next?

As the chart below shows, the push for alternative drug policies in Latin America is picking up steam, but while many countries are in the midst of debating proposals for reform, legalization remains a distant reality for many.  

Likelihood of Drug Policy Reform

        Very likely
   Somewhat likely
   Not likely
Country                     Drug laws                          

 – A 2009 Supreme Court ruling declared that it was unconstitutional to give out prison  sentences for cases involving small amounts of drugs for personal use. But Congress hasn’t  yet changed the law.
 – Recently, President Kirchner OK’d executive officials to present proposals for drug  decriminalization to Congress by the end of this year.


– While Bolivia has a legal coca market, very little has happened in terms of reforming its drug  use and possession laws.


– Currently debating drug legislation reform.
– Law decriminalizes drug consumption for personal use, and lays out stricter punishments for  those caught trafficking drugs, but doesn’t strictly define the difference.


– Appears to be keen on decriminalizing personal use and cultivation of marijuana.
– The first medical marijuana law went into effect in Santiago the last week of October.

Colombia– The law allows people to possess a “personal dose” of drugs, but there has been confusion in implementing it.
– Earlier this year, President Santos endorsed new legislation that would allow for medicinal  marijuana.
Costa Rica

 – Marijuana is illegal, but authorities rarely prosecute those caught carrying small doses.
 – The government has declared itself against legalization.

Ecuador – Under its new law, Ecuador substantially reduced drug possession penalties and quietly  began releasing hundreds of people imprisoned for trafficking small quantities of drugs.
El Salvador – A longstanding law allows for up to 2 grams of drugs for personal possession, but the country hasn’t  moved forward on reform otherwise.
Guatemala – President Otto Perez has been a strong voice for reform in the region.
 – The commission set up to examine the issue urged Guatemala to approach drug policy as more of a public health issue. Overall, however, the report missed an opportunity to make some bolder recommendations.
Honduras – Has focused little attention on drug policy reform in recent years, instead investing most of its resources on the security side.
Jamaica – On the verge of allowing up to 2 grams of marijuana for personal use.
Mexico– Mexico City has proposed a law that would allow stores to sell up to 5 grams of marijuana ,  but there’s little initiative in terms of legislation at a national level.
 President Enrique Peña Nieto has said he’s willing to discuss the issue.
Nicaragua– Has some of the strictest drug laws in the region.
Panama– Has some of the strictest drug laws in the region.
Paraguay– Paraguay allows for possession of up to 10 grams of pot, but the government has strongly  criticized reforms in neighboring Uruguay and declared itself against marijuana legalization.
Peru– The law allows possession for personal use, but in practice it’s a different story and penalties for drug related crimes remain high.
– President Ollanta Humala initially appointed a progressive drug policy czar, who later called  for debate on marijuana legalization in Peru after being removed from the post. Yet crop eradication remains a focal point of Peru’s drug policy.
Uruguay – The only country in the world that allows a legal marijuana market, Uruguay recently began registering its first cannabis clubs.
Venezuela– Allows up to 2 grams of cocaine and 10 grams of marijuana for personal use.
– The minister of exterior affairs has said Venezuela will “evaluate” Uruguay’s experience, but  currently there’s not much push for national drug policy reform.
  Source: Transnational Institute Drug Law Reform Project; news reports. 

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