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'This Debate Will No Longer be Suppressed': Legalizing Drugs Breaks Into the Mainstream

Latin American leaders are increasingly speaking out against prohibition. And public opinion in America, especially when it comes to legalizing pot, is shifting very rapidly.

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But they need—the U.S. government needs to be worried—well, let’s say, it needs to be worried that somebody new might step up in the way that President Santos and President Pérez Molina have in Guatemala and say, "Enough is enough. All this rhetoric, Mr. Vice President, about winning the war against the narcos, where is the evidence that you can win that? In fact, where is the evidence that any militaristic, criminal justice crackdown strategy can defeat what is essentially a global commodities market?" Because that’s what we’re talking about.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ethan, I wanted to ask you about the—what’s happening domestically, as well, the recent announcement by Pat Robertson, the evangelical leader, questioning the war on drugs, as well, and suggesting that some kind of legalization in the United States here, at least of marijuana, might be the proper course. How do you assess the impact of Robertson’s statements?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, I think it’s very significant. I mean, he put his toe in the water on this about a year-and-a-half ago, saying that maybe we should decriminalize, and then his staff pulled him back. But what he did this week is he made very clear that he’s not just talking about decriminalizing the possession of marijuana. He said it’s time to legally regulate it like alcohol. He explicitly gave his approval to the marijuana legalization initiatives that will be on the ballot in November in Colorado and Washington, thereby becoming the first national figure to really come out and endorse these initiatives. His arguments were cogent. He made the point about large numbers of arrests and the costs that are being spent on this stuff. And he’s also—you know, according to the Gallup poll, 50 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, and 46 percent are against. That’s the first time in American history we’ve seen a majority of Americans saying it’s time to treat marijuana like alcohol. The groups that are the most resistant are, by and large, Republicans, conservatives and people over the age of 65, where only about a third in each of those groups support legalizing marijuana. That’s a group that Robertson speaks to.

So I think when you put this in a broader context, what you see is that public opinion, especially on this marijuana issue, is shifting very rapidly. And it’s not a frivolous issue. Half of all drug arrests in America, about 850,000 arrests out of 1.7 million each year, are for nothing more than marijuana possession. You know, if I was going to put this in a broader frame, and if you say, "What’s the target here?" it really is the U.S. federal government. And I think the way we’re going to see the change in the federal government is by two things coming together. On the one hand, in the United States, you’re going to see, at the level of public opinion, civil society and state government, the push to change the way we deal with marijuana, first with the legalization of medical marijuana, then with the decriminalization, and ultimately with the sort of ballot initiatives we see to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington. And then on the outside the United States, I think what’s happening more and more is that more or less the elites—the political, military, diplomatic, intelligence, business community, media elites—the more that those folks are saying to their equivalents in the United States government, "Enough already. This is a failed prohibitionist policy. You cannot deny the need for a debate. We need to vote the same—need to devote the same amount of attention to examining alternatives to the current prohibitionist strategies as we’ve spent over the last 40 years trying to figure out which prohibitionist strategy might work" — I think that’s the way, from internally and externally, that ultimately U.S. government policy will change.