Prop 19 debate goes international

With scarcely two weeks to go before one of the biggest elections in recent history, voters are being asked to make several pivotal choices. But the one that has effectively dominated the news markets has been the choice as to whether or not California will become the first state in the union to decriminalize marijuana, treating it as equivalent to alcohol. The battle lines have been drawn. 

Civil libertarians, progressives, and some law enforcement stand on the side of legalization, forwarding arguments about crime prevention, personal autonomy and the potential for increased tax revenue.  On the other side, some economic libertarians, anti-drug conservatives, some law enforcement, and even several hard-line pro-drug constituencies are forwarding arguments about public safety, moral civics, and the insufficiency of Proposition 19 as a means to an end. But the battleground has just shifted beyond California.

The New York Times recently reported that California’s neighbor to the South, Mexico, now views the upcoming decision about Proposition 19 as a sign that drug prohibition may be on the way out, not only in California, nor indeed in the United States, but all over North and Central America. And predictably, the issue is just as polarizing all over Mexico as it is in California, with former centrist President Vicente Fox strongly supporting the proposition as a means to reduce crime, and current center-right President Felipe Calderon attacking it as a sign that California is callous in the face of Mexico’s thriving drug industry. 

Both men are, in some sense, wrong. Fox’s argument that the proposition could reduce crime, while it might be true of California, may have virtually no effect on Mexico, because, as the Times also reported: 

     “A study released last week by the nonpartisan RAND Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica, Calif., cast doubt on whether legalization in California would financially harm Mexico’s drug traffickers. It argued that cutting out the California market would reduce their revenue only 2 to 4 percent, in part because much of the marijuana consumed in California is already grown there, and the drug organizations derive their income from many sources.”  

Calderon’s argument is also specious, given that Proposition 19, as indicated above, deals primarily with a domestic issue in California at the level of pure economics, and would have very little impact on Mexico’s drug trade. However, Calderon has good reason to be fearful, as papers that usually stand with him have broken on marijuana legalization, and the potential passage of Proposition 19 has made four out of the six potential candidates to succeed Calderon seriously consider the issue.  

Back in California, just as the campaign is heating up, both sides of the debate appear to have run out of financial juice. A story in the Los Angeles Times points out that neither side has the financial resources to mount a sustained TV campaign, and that so far, the issue has been debated largely in print or over the internet. Grassroots efforts by pro-legalization groups, as well as labor unions, can breathe some life into Prop 19, but these groups (especially the unions) also have the potential to alienate key backers of the measure who lean Right, making every potential move a two-edged sword. 

In any case, after Proposition 19, California may never be the same, nor indeed may Mexico. In fact, it might even be fair, given the international furor over Proposition 19, to make the bold statement that as California goes, so goes the nation.