The Global Impact of the Legalisation of Cannabis in Washington and Colorado

They say that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. You only need to look at the collapse of some US banks four years ago to see how true that is. But good things can be infectious too.

On the same day as President Obama was re-elected, the citizens of Washington state and Colorado voted to legalise cannabis. Through taxing and regulation, they hope to constrict the power of criminal gangs and make cannabis safe to consume. Massachusetts also became the 18th state to approve medical marijuana. Even though cannabis is still illegal as far as the federal government is concerned, American cannabis campaigners are celebrating like never before.

And they’re not alone. Cannabis activists across the world are in a jubilant mood, hoping that the experiments in Washington and Colorado will prove the wisdom of their views. The ballots have sparked a global debate over whether there is an alternative to the war on drugs. For instance, the Irish Times has called for the legalisation of medical marijuana in Ireland following the votes in America.

Prominent British Columbian campaigner David Malmo-Levine has declared that the war on drugs is now over: “You put one hole in the dam, the water starts rushing faster, and eventually the dam breaks.” He and many others are confident that the vote in neighbouring Washington will “relax” people enough to legalise it in British Columbia, if not the whole of Canada.

Many in Mexico, the frontline in America’s war on drugs, will be happy with the results. Alejandro Hope of the Mexican Competitiveness Institute has estimated that if Colorado alone develops a flourishing legal cannabis industry then the income of the cartels operating in Mexico could be reduced by as much as $1.4 billion. The President-elect’s closest adviser said that the votes changed the rules of the game, and will force Mexico to rethink its drug strategy.

In 1985 India gave in to pressure from the US to make ganja and other psychotropic substances illegal. The Times of India claims that making soft drugs legal again would be the enlightened thing to do and that now is the time to do it. Since many of America’s own citizens want legalisation, the pressure to enforce this “poorly-thought out law” has been weakened.

The issue has split Israeli politicians as many Knesset Members have come out in favour of legalisation. One MK justified his position by saying, “I believe that being a Jew means being free.”

In France, the Director of Asud (Autosupport des Usagers de Drogues) and the President of Circ (Collectif d’information et de recherche cannabique) have gone on the offensive. Spurred on by the success across the Atlantic, they argue that France must not be left behind, since “In capitalist countries, it is the liberal logic that seems to prevail”. The special investigator into drugs for Le Nouvel Observateur declared that it is “the end of hypocrisy”.

The New Zealand chapter of NORML has been invigorated by the news from America. The vice-president Abe Gray said that cannabis tourists are precisely the kind of people New Zealand needs to attract, claiming that they tend to spend more than backpackers. "By simply legitimising what is already happening all over New Zealand ... we could be free of the harmful effects of prohibition on kiwis, and reaping the windfall revenues projected by Colorado and Washington." Campaigners have proposed that Northland, a part of the country already known as “the cannabis capital of New Zealand”, should trial legalisation.

The Trinidad Express, inspired by the ballots, has called for the decriminalisation of cannabis, claiming that, “Our courts are needlessly clogged with innumerable cases of simple possession of a joint”. Frustration over criminalisation in Trinidad and Tobago has also been worked up by the death of Atiba Duncan, who was shot in the back as he ran from police who had caught him smoking marijuana.

Russia is not going to adopt a more American attitude towards cannabis anytime soon, but the votes have started a debate. Academics have said that “Drug addiction is a disease, and to fight against it by legalizing it is an absolutely wrong approach” and that because of cannabis campaigners “the anti-drug order existing in the world may be destroyed.” Activists may perceive that as flattery rather than fear-mongering.

Although America has a good record as a trend-setter, there is no guarantee that a wave of legalisation will sweep across the world. But already four Latin American leaders have called on the UN to re-examine its drug policy. Thanks to these two referenda, the future of cannabis could be very interesting.