Top U.S. General Says Marijuana Legalization Makes Latin American Officials Less Eager to Join the Futile War on Drugs


House Armed Services Committee

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Gen. John F. Kelly, who is in charge of the U.S. Southern Command, complained that marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington has made it harder to enlist Latin American countries in the war on drugs:

We've been encouraging these countries to be in the drug fight for 25 years. The levels of violence that our drug problem has caused in many of these countries is just astronomical. And so when we talk about decriminalizing, the example I would give you is the two states that voted to decriminalize marijuana, or legalize marijuana. Most of the…countries I deal with were in utter disbelief that we would, in their opinion, be going in that direction, particularly after 25 years of encouraging them to fight our drug problem in their countries and, you know, in their littorals. So that's kind of where they are on it. They're very polite to me, but every now and again when they're not so polite, the term hypocrite gets into the discussion. But frankly, the crime rate is so high in many of these countries and the fact that they see us turning away from the drug fight…They're starting to chatter a lot about, "Well, why don't we just step back and let it flow?"

Contrary to Kelly's gloss, "the levels of violence" in Latin America are caused not by "our drug problem" but by our insistence that other countries help us solve it by cracking down on suppliers, a strategy that has never succeeded in cutting off the northward flow of drugs but has resulted in many deaths. It is the height of arrogance for the U.S. government to demand that Colombians, Bolivians, and Peruvians help enforce its arbitrary pharmacological decrees, especially when that effort is not only futile but demonstrably harmful. So it is not hard to see why the officials with whom Kelly deals might react in the way he describes to signs that Americans are having second thoughts about this crazy chemophobic crusade. But recommitting to the never-ending, always-failing "drug fight" is not the only way to avoid charges of hypocrisy. If the experiments in Colorado and Washington lead to a broader re-examination of the war on drugs, I would count that as a benefit, not a cost.

Kelly claimed "countries that have decriminalized or legalized drugs are all now trying to figure out ways to turn back the clock," because "legal or decriminalized drugs bring crime, bring higher addiction rates, bring higher, you know, substance abuse problems." He did not cite any specific examples, which is not surprising, since no country has ever "legalized drugs" in the sense of eliminating penalties for production, distribution, and possession. The closest example is Uruguay, which has approved a plan to make marijuana legally available but has not implemented it yet.

[Thanks to Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority for the tip.]