State's victory in pot decision will be felt south of the border

In a landmark decision Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the federal government would not challenge state laws that decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana.

Washingtonians who support legalization and who voted for Initiative 502 last November are taking this moment to breathe a sigh of relief: The announcement removes the last major roadblock preventing true marijuana decriminalization in Washington.

Holder’s decision certainly provides us with cause for celebration because I-502 is one of the most important initiatives Washington has passed in recent memory. Best estimates forecast that marijuana sales will generate billions of dollars in additional tax revenue in the coming years, which will bolster state funding for health care and drug-prevention programs. I-502 also frees up state law enforcement resources so that officers can focus on combating more dangerous crime.

Yet while we in Washington tend to focus on the local benefits, I-502’s real benefits lie 1,500 miles south of Puget Sound. Fueled by a multibillion-dollar illegal trade in marijuana, Mexico finds itself in what can only be described as an all-out war. But I-502 can help Mexico pull itself out of this vicious cycle of violence.

Few people in Mexico have escaped the horrible effects of their country’s drug violence. Over the last 61/2 years, fighting among drug cartels, the federal police and the Mexican military has left 60,000 Mexicans dead and another 25,000 missing and feared dead. The violence has reached such a shocking level that you are more likely to die standing on a street corner in Ciudad Juarez than you are in Baghdad.

Mexico’s drug cartels are remarkably well-equipped, having gained access to military-grade assault rifles, explosives, hand grenades and anti-tank rockets.

Drug lords have killed more Mexican security force personnel than the Taliban have U.S. service members in Afghanistan. They even brazenly attack civilians, which has forced hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to flee into the U.S for refuge.

Unfortunately, violence in Mexico shows no signs of abating. But for good reason, we can expect I-502 to be a major game-changer. Legalization in the U.S., even at its current gradual pace, means that the stranglehold drug cartels have on the marijuana trade is beginning to abate as the business is channeled into legal practices.After all, black markets flourish only when government policy forbids markets from meeting consumer demand.

According to a 2008 report by the FBI and the DEA, the vast majority of drug cartels’ profits come from marijuana sales. With the passage of I-502, the drug cartels’ are being shut out of Washington’s marijuana market and its potential 6.9 million consumers, showing how legalization can deal a serious blow to the profits drug cartels enjoy.

While I-502’s immediate impact on the violence in Mexico is limited, we’re now witnessing a change in the marijuana debate both in the U.S. and abroad. Marijuana legalization is featured prominently in this year’s electoral campaigns, most notably in the New York City mayoral race, where three candidates have pledged at least some form of legalization. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, previously a staunch opponent to legalization, is now saying that the recent decisions by voters in Washington and Colorado has him reconsidering his opposition to legal marijuana.

Thursday’s announcement by the Federal government puts the final stamp of approval on marijuana legalization and gives all of us a reason to breathe a sigh of relief. The additional funding for social programs that I-502 will generate and the law enforcement resources it frees up are all good reasons for Washingtonians to be applauding Holder’s announcement.

But the most dramatic change that legalization is beginning to usher in will be felt by tens of millions of people south of the border, and that’s the biggest reason for celebration.

Michael Wotherspoon is a senior majoring in law and policy at the University of Washington Tacoma and has written on Mexico’s drug war in the Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies. Email him at michael.wotherspoon@gmail.com.