And yet the prohibition on marijuana is something more than just a fading relic of the culture wars. It has also been part of the ad hoc assemblage of laws, treaties, and policies that together we call the “war on drugs,” and it is in this context that the votes on Election Day may have their furthest reach. When activists in California tried to fully legalize marijuana there in 2010, the most deeply felt opposition came from the president of Mexico, who called the initiative “absurd,” telling reporters that an America that legalized marijuana had “very little moral authority to condemn a Mexican farmer who for hunger is planting marijuana to sustain the insatiable North American market for drugs.” This year, the reaction from the chief strategist for the incoming Mexican president was even broader and more pointed. The votes in Colorado and Washington, he said, “change somewhat the rules of the game … we have to carry out a review of our joint policies in regard to drug trafficking and security in general.” The suggestion from south of the border wasn’t that cocaine should be subject to the same regime as marijuana. It was: If we are going to rewrite the rules on drug policy to make them more sensible, why stop at only one drug? Why go partway?
Something unexpected has happened in the past five years. The condemnations of the war on drugs—of the mechanized imprisonment of much of our inner cities, of the brutal wars sustained in Latin America at our behest, of the sheer cost of prohibition, now likely past a trillion dollars—have migrated out from the left-wing cul-de-sacs that they have long inhabited and into the political Establishment. “The war on drugs, though well-intentioned, has been a failure,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie said this summer. A global blue-ribbon panel that included both the former Reagan secretary of State George Shultz and Kofi Annan had reached the same conclusion the previous June: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies.” The pressures from south of the border have grown far more urgent: The presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Belize, and Costa Rica have all called for a broad reconsideration of the drug war in the past year, and the Organization of American States is now trying to work out what realistic alternatives there might be.