All Commentary
Friday, November 6, 2015

Ireland, Mexico, Canada Defect from the War on Drugs

The Drug War is losing allies

On November 3, Ohio voters rejected a flawed plan to legalize marijuana, even though most Ohioans are in favor of legalization. The measure would have amended the state constitution to legalize the sale of cannabis, but only through a state-sanctioned drug cartel of ten licensed dealers. 

But there are other encouraging signs that the War on Drugs is losing steam.

On November 4, Canada’s newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was sworn into office. Trudeau and the Liberal Party promise to legalize marijuana in Canada, which would make it only the second country to formally legalize the sale and consumption of cannabis. (Uruguay became the first, in 2013 — contrary to popular belief, pot is not technically legal in the Netherlands, but it is tolerated).

On November 3, the Irish government announced decriminalization of not just marijuana but also heroin and cocaine. The chief of Ireland’s National Drugs Strategy told the papers there was a “strong consensus that drugs across the board should be decriminalised.”

Decriminalization is a far cry from legalization — it’s still a crime to make, sell, or “profit from” drugs — but users and addicts would no longer be locked up for their personal consumption. The results from Portugal’s decriminalization of all drugs in 2001 have been extremely extraordinary: deaths, addiction, and HIV infections from drugs have all dropped precipitously.

Perhaps the most heartening news comes from Mexico, where the drug war has raged for decades. On November 5, the criminal chamber of the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the country’s ban on marijuana was unconstitutional and found that individuals have a right to grow, possess, and use marijuana.

The decision was sweeping and driven by human rights considerations, as well as factual analysis of the harms of marijuana in particular. Jacob Sullum writes,

According to the official summary of the decision, the court’s criminal division concluded that the right to “free development of the personality” includes the freedom to engage in recreational activities, subject to restrictions “necessary to protect health and public order.”

In the court’s view, the damage caused by consumption and noncommercial production of marijuana is not “of such gravity as to warrant an absolute ban.”

Currently, this ruling by the criminal chamber (a sort of sub-panel of the Supreme Court) only applies to the individuals who brought the lawsuit challenging the ban. According to the New York Times, for the ruling to strike down the law entirely, the criminal chamber “will have to rule the same way five times, or eight of the 11 members of the full court will have to vote in favor.”

The ruling suggests that growing and consuming for personal use would be allowed, but not necessarily sale or distribution. Nonetheless, the willingness to challenge the longstanding orthodoxy about the state’s power to infringe on personal choices is an encouraging sign that Mexico may soon at least decriminalize cannabis. By one estimate, 60% of people convicted of drug crimes in Mexico are imprisoned for marijuana-related crimes.

So while Ohio may have rejected a flawed legalization initiative, the rest of this week racked up a flurry of victories in the fight to end the global drug war. 



  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.