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DPhil Thesis:


Altered States: The Politics of Marijuana Legalization in Latin America [download link]

My thesis investigates how and why drug policy liberalization has moved from purported impossibility to political reality in Latin America. Specifically, I ask why do we see far reaching marijuana legalization in Uruguay and Mexico, and no reform at all in Chile? To answer this question, I study the role that actors, ideas and institutions play in the reform process. Based on unparalleled access to key actors, my thesis combines process tracing and counterfactual analysis to build and assess my argument.

Without disregarding the importance of state support or societal opposition, my thesis argues that civil society reform proponents are the driving force behind recent cannabis liberalization episodes in Latin America. Organizational resources and capacities, as well as coalitions with other actors, shape reform proponents’ ability to influence decision making. Professionalized and institutionalized advocates are more successful than grassroots activists in strategically framing cannabis reform. Both messages and messengers condition whether would-be reformers are more or less persuasive in agenda setting, maintenance and counteracting agenda denial, which in turn determine the attention and approval reform demands achieve.

My thesis finds that differences in organizational capacities of reform proponents, their strategic framing and agenda manipulation explain the variation in marijuana legalization in Latin America. Uruguayan reform proponents capitalized on insider agenda setting by the government, whereas Mexican and Chilean reform proponents had to pro-actively engage in agenda setting. In Uruguay, a professional campaign adopted focus group-tested messages. In Mexico, elite societal actors adapted their legal challenge according to the target audience. In Chile, “grassroots” activists failed to offer a coherent framing of cannabis liberalization.

Whereas Uruguayan and Mexican reform proponents were highly professional and pragmatic, Chilean reform proponents’ efforts were mostly amateurish and idealistic. In combination, these differences in demand shaped the supply of drug policy reform in Latin America.

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