Spurious Anti-Prop. 19 Arguments: Overseas Edition


Although on closer examination, you don't really have to cross any major bodies of water to get to Colombia, where President Juan Manuel Santos has taken to echoing American critics who oppose Prop. 19 because of the state-federal legal mayhem that's likely to ensue if the ballot measure passes next week. Santos says Prop. 19 will create a similar discrepancy on an international scale. Indeed, he argues that imprisoning Colombians for growing a product that's legal in California is no way to fight a drug war:

According to Santos, a legalization of the sale, transport and consumption of marijuana in the state would be inexplicable to a Colombian farmer who is criminally charged if he cultivates the drug.

"I said this to the United Nations, because I didn't invent this, that they are asking me if there is a way to explain that to a Colombian farmer who we throw in jail if producing marijuana, while at the same time it is legal there. This will result in a global discussion about the focus we've had in the war on drugs," the president said in an interview with Caracol Radio.

This would be typical pro-drug war pablum if it weren't for the fact that Santos is arguably held hostage by the very prohibitionist policies he's echoing here. Colombia has received $2.7 billion in U.S. military aid since 2006, largely in response to the threat that Venezuela-backed narco-terrorists have posed to the U.S.-aligned drug warriors in the Colombian government. Colombia is in something of a double-bind as far as the drug war is concerned: The government has made billions off of U.S. prohibitionism, and U.S. foreign aid all but saved Colombia from descending into failed state-like chaos in the mid-90s. But the government is also genuinely threatened by insurgents who are underwritten by the trade in illegal drugs. U.S. drug prohibition both imperils and bolsters a government like Colombia's, which justifiably fears the lack of a "united stance" in facing down the very organizations that threaten its legitimacy and existence. 

The problem is similar in Mexico. The government has to assert itself against the cartels in order to maintain its territorial and even civic legitimacy. But it can't do this without the help of the country whose policies gave rise to the drug war in the first place. You can criticize Santos for failing to point out the inherently paradoxical nature of a drug war in which he is an active participant. But with the remnants of the FARC camped out only a couple hundred miles from Caracas, you can sort of understand how he can feel threatened by a possible change in the U.S.'s attitude towards illegal drugs.

Which is all the more reason to support drug war-busting efforts like Prop. 19. It won't end the absurd, untenable status quo that simultaneously sustains and endangers countries like Colombia and Mexico. But it's an essential first step, even if it will bewilder the occasional Colombian peasant farmer.