Uruguay charts new course on marijuana legalization

Nation becomes first to legalize marijuana amid growing consensus that war on drugs is unsustainable

Marijuana plants in El Pinar, Uruguay, in November. Lawmakers in Uruguay are expected to pass a bill legalizing marijuana on Dec. 10, 2013.
Miguel Rojo/AFP/Getty Images

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica is no stranger to revolution. As a leader of the Tupamaros guerrilla group in the 1960s and 1970s, he orchestrated an armed uprising against financial institutions and the Uruguayan government — attacks that included political kidnappings and assassinations. He was captured in 1972, escaped twice and eventually spent 14 years in prison, including more than a decade in solitary confinement. Now, he finds himself heading a new rebellion, leading Uruguay on the path to become the world’s first country to legalize marijuana.

Late Tuesday, Uruguay’s Senate took an historic step and voted to approve a measure championed by Mujica that regulates the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for adults. In doing so, the tiny nation of 3.3 million adds momentum to the movement building in Latin America — and in U.S., where Colorado and Washington state have already done so — to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.

“It’s a wonderful sequel to what Washington and Colorado did last year, and it’s going to stir up a new level of debate and discussion,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “In the same way that Colorado and Washington had an impact on public opinion, I think the step Uruguay is taking can have an analogous impact in the regional and, to some extent, international context.”

A growing list of Latin American leaders has called for alternatives to the blood-soaked war on drugs initiated by the United States 40 years ago and buttressed by the United Nations. That prohibitionist model, they say, has been a spectacular failure. Focused almost exclusively on stemming supply, it has done little to reduce global drug consumption and nothing to stop the violence associated with drug trafficking.

The Uruguayan measure will allow registered users to buy up to 40 grams of cannabis per month from licensed pharmacies. It would also permit domestic cultivation of up to six plants, much like the Colorado law. And residents would be allowed to join marijuana social clubs, which could cultivate and distribute enough marijuana — limited to 99 plants — to meet their needs, a model widely used in Spain. The law, additionally, would permit the government to produce pot for scientific and medicinal studies. And to dissuade pot tourism, only Uruguayan residents will be permitted to buy cannabis. It’s all an effort to treat the use of the drug as a public-health issue instead of a criminal one.

Mujica says the law will snatch the black market from drug traffickers, the drug war’s biggest profiteers. To do so, the government would sell higher-quality marijuana at a lower price: $1 per gram, as opposed to the $1.40 per gram for black-market marijuana that comes primarily from Paraguay. By doing do, Uruguay would tap into the marijuana black market, estimated at $40 million a year, and drastically reduce the $80 million the state spends annually to combat drugs.

“It’s an instrument to diminish the economic gains made by the black market,” Julio Calzada, general secretary of Uruguay’s National Drug Committee, told Al Jazeera America. “If we can remove the profit the black market makes from marijuana sales, we’re going to substantially decrease the black market and its violence.”

Domino effect

As daily headlines attest, drug-fueled violence has turned large swaths of Central and South America into war zones. Recently that bloodshed has spurred sitting presidents to embark on the politically risky move of calling for legalization alternatives to current drug policies, with the most prominent pleas coming from Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and his Colombian counterpart, Juan Manuel Santos.

Until now, though, U.S. and U.N. pressure has kept enthusiasm for legalization in check. Veer from supporting the aggressive U.S. war on drugs, many countries fear, and risk trade sanctions or the withdrawal of aid, for example.

But that fear may be waning. Ironically, relief has come from the U.S., particularly after Colorado and Washington became the first jurisdictions in the world to legalize pot last year. Those moves were met with guarded consent by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who informed the governors of those two states in August that the Justice Department would not interfere with implementation of the measures.

“The U.S., in the case of marijuana, is clearly headed in another direction itself, and the idea that it would be punishing a country for doing what the U.S. is finding OK for itself would be difficult,” said John Walsh, a drug-policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “So there is going to be somewhat more political space for considering this type of proposal,” he added, referring to the Uruguayan measure.

No country is ready right now to replicate the Uruguayan model, but several have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of some drugs. And a handful of countries are studying the measure as they consider similar legislation.

Several Caribbean nations have discussed pot legalization. Ralph Gonzalves, St. Vincent’s prime minister, recently proposed that the 15-member Caribbean Community debate pot legalization. And Trinidad and Tobago’s chief justice has suggested that the island legalize marijuana to ease pressure on an overwhelmed judiciary. He joins Mark Golding, Jamaica’s justice minister, who in September praised the legalization efforts. “We will be reviewing the matter in light of the recent developments in the hemisphere,” Golding told The Associated Press.

Mexico, led by politicians from the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, is on the verge of introducing legislation that would legalize marijuana social clubs and the cultivation of three pot plants per person in Mexico City. And Ecuador, joined by Mexico and Guatemala, has become increasingly critical of the United Nations as it prepares its long-term strategy to combat illicit narcotics.

At a recently binational drug conference in Uruguay, Rodrigo Velez, chief of Ecuador’s national drug commission said, “Ecuador looks at Uruguay’s experience with the regulation of marijuana with much interest. They took the decision as a sovereign nation, and that is very important.”

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