The international dimensions of legalizing pot by mattsteinglass
April 4, 2009, 8:53 pm
Filed under: Drugs

The usual people on my blog reading list (Klein, Klein, Yglesias, Will Wilkinson, Sullivan) note recently that marijuana should either be decriminalized or actually legalized, and I agree. But if the US legalizes possession and sale of marijuana, how does it affect our relationship with countries that still consider it illegal, attempt strenuously to prevent its importation, and hand out hefty criminal penalties for it? At one level, you have the problem of Americans who will grow used to personal marijuana use and, for reasons of negligence or “they-can’t-be-serious”-ness, carry some of it on trips abroad. In Vietnam, criminal sanctions (i.e. prison terms) for hash possession start at 100 grams, and Vietnam is among the more lenient states in SE Asia. In Singapore and the Philippines the death penalty is mandatory for 17 ounces or more of marijuana.

But the problem of drug-using tourists is actually relatively minor. What’s likely to be far more complicated is the problem that the US will become, from these countries’ point of view, a country that harbors and even encourages criminal narcotics gangsters, in much the same way the US today regards Bolivia or Burma. The law enforcement relations between the US and many other countries will likely suffer whiplash: the US has been sending DEA officers to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia for many years now to “train” them (i.e., often, prod them) to be more effective at eradicating trade in drugs, including marijuana.

Asian countries’ hostility to drug use isn’t solely an outgrowth of American or other Western puritanism: the heroin trade was for over a century a key source of gangsterism and government weakness in Asia, and was promoted by Western colonial powers for exactly that reason. (Viz. the Opium Wars.) So in much of Asia the fight against narcotics is bound up with the fight for national self-determination. This makes Asian governments wary of following Western governments’ lead in decriminalizing drug use; the US has been trying for many years to encourage Vietnam to treat heroin addicts with methadone rather than mandatory detention and rehabilitation, but so far only a pilot program or two have been adopted. Addiction is associated for Vietnamese with passivity, disunity, weakness, and exploitation by foreign powers, and the idea of accepting and managing addiction rather than eradicating it through discipline is a very tough sell.

This is to say nothing of how US decriminalization of marijuana would play in Mexico or the rest of Latin America, where the US’s war on drugs has completely deformed our relationships for decades now and visited a tremendous amount of misery on other states. It’s hard enough for the Netherlands to manage French and German complaints about its drug policies, and Holland hasn’t been sending troops into the Loire Valley to spray defoliants on cannabis fields.

So how would the US manage the international dimension of decriminalizing marijuana? I don’t really know. But I think it’s an issue that people should take up.


1 Comment so far
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Take up and manage with care, yes. But not overestimate or let stand in the way of a more sensible policy. And while I understand that there are strong cultural reasons for prohibition completely independent of US policy, I think a shift in the US approach would have enormous influence (toward decriminalisation) on the world.

Comment by MB

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