The real danger of Uruguay’s pot legalization

The push to decriminalize marijuana at home and abroad could help combat drug-war profiteering

January 6, 2014 8:00AM ET
Marijuana activist and grower Juan Vaz, head of the Uruguayan Cannabis Studies Association, checks the temperature in his indoor garden in Montevideo.
Andres Stapff/Reuters

In December, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalize the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. While the International Narcotics Control Board, a body of experts established by the United Nations, condemned the move as a violation of international drug treaties, other observers consider it an alternative model in the debate over drug policy — and one to watch closely.

President Jose Mujica’s logic is that the decriminalization of marijuana will undermine drug cartels by depriving them of the lucrative nature of the trade in illicit substances. Newsweek quoted Mujica’s reasoning: “How do you combat drug trafficking? By stealing away part of the market.”

The law, which, among other things, will allow registered Uruguayans older than 18 to buy pot over the counter from licensed pharmacies, is a milestone in the war on the war on drugs — the fight against influential interests, both American and foreign, that profit from the war on drugs and, in fact, depend on its continued existence.

In assessing the law’s prospects for victory, it is important to recognize that the drug market extends far beyond drug traffickers, whose business on the ground is covertly linked to these other powerful interests.

In their 2011 book, “Cocaine, Death Squads and the War on Terror: U.S. Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia,” scholars Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle highlight such interests:

The cocaine decade (of the 1980s) saw the consolidation of the Colombian drug trade as a source of profit for U.S. capital via banks that were established to launder and invest drug money in legitimate U.S. corporations. The United States contended it was at war with drugs and terrorists in Colombia, but, in reality, the economic relations between U.S. imperialism and the Colombian narco-bourgeoisie permitted cocaine production to flourish … and the cocaine market to expand within the United States and Western Europe.

Financial commitments to the war on drugs have become further entrenched over the years, thanks to the opportunities the battlefield provides for U.S. corporations, private security firms and arms-industry players, among other entities, to market their products.

Companies like Lockheed Martin and DynCorp have been awarded lucrative U.S. counternarcotics contracts, and the biotechnology giant Monsanto has profited from the coating of swaths of Colombian farmland in herbicide — ostensibly with the goal of combating drug production. These contracts would disappear if the war on drugs were to end.

Politically, too, the maintenance of the narco-menace in Latin America facilitates regional militarization by the U.S., whose officials and pundits deploy drug trafficking allegations to discredit left-leaning governments opposed to imperial intrusions.

If Uruguay can implement the law successfully, it may provide a model for undercutting both the illegal narcotics market and the big interests that profit from the continuing drug wars. 

Drug-war machine

Traveling in southern Colombia several years ago, a friend and I heard a variety of complaints from small farmers regarding the collateral damage of U.S.-sponsored aerial fumigation of local coca plantations. The herbicide spray was supposed to target only coca fields — where the source for cocaine grew — and not food crops. However, according to the farmers, included in the fumigation were sugarcane and banana crops, water supplies, livestock and even children.

The spectacular imprecision that has characterized the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia — since 2000, a mainstay of the war on drugs — is underscored in a dispatch for CorpWatch by journalist Jeremy Bigwood, who recounts a 2001 visit that Sen. Paul Wellstone, a critic of the plan, made to Colombia. 

Uruguay will draw on its experience with controlling the market for addictive substances: It began regulating whiskey production in the 1930s.

Although the visit was arranged by officials to demonstrate to the recalcitrant lawmaker the supposed accuracy of fumigation by crop duster, Bigwood quotes the senator’s spokesman on the resulting spectacle:

“On the very first flyover by the crop duster, the U.S. senator, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, the lieutenant colonel of the Colombian National Police and other embassy and congressional staffers were fully doused — drenched, in fact,” with Roundup, Monsanto’s signature herbicide.

In the overarching discourse of the U.S. political establishment, the toxic effects of drug-war policies on human health and environments abroad — almost comically underscored by the herbicide-spraying misstep — are often justified in the name of saving lives. The hypocrisy of the arrangement becomes even more impressive when we consider, for example, the utter ineffectiveness of Plan Colombia in reducing cocaine exports to the U.S.

Other examples suggest that, for those ostensibly fighting the good fight, there are more upsides to prolonging the drug war than ending it. A 2011 Guardian article on the Merida Initiative, which cemented U.S.-Mexican cooperation in the fight against drugs, emphasizes the imperial benefits of outsourcing: “The initiative has formalised American intervention in Mexican national security, intelligence, crime fighting, the training and command of military forces and police, the patrol of Mexico's airspace, land and sea, as well as logistics and procurement.”  

More than 50,000 people perished over six years in Mexico as a result of those drug-war operations (which were in part outsourced to then-President Felipe Calderon’s administration), converting Mexico into a battlefield while failing to address the demand for drugs in the U.S. — and suggesting that the drug war poses more of a threat to human life than drugs themselves do.

Seeking alternative models

U.S. qualifications for waging a war on drugs should have been soundly debunked during the Iran-Contra era, when right-wing Nicaraguan paramilitaries were encouraged to profit from the cocaine trade. This policy set off a crack cocaine epidemic that devastated communities in South-Central Los Angeles, calling into question the government’s concern for its citizenry.

The drug war continues to reinforce structural oppression in the U.S., as highlighted in a 2012 episode of Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” that discusses the vastly disproportionate incarceration of black people on drug charges.

The U.S. response to the decriminalization of marijuana in Uruguay has been decidedly less animated than its response to a drug legalization proposal last year in Guatemala. As noted in the Huffington Post, this may have something to do with Uruguay’s distance from the front lines of the drug war and its relatively unimportant role in international trafficking — not to mention recent initiatives in a number of U.S. states to legalize certain aspects of marijuana consumption.

But the decriminalization precedent set by Uruguay should by no means be overlooked. For one thing, the country will draw on its experience with (and success in) controlling the market for addictive substances: It began regulating whiskey production in the 1930s. And already the Uruguayan experiment has prompted other Latin American nations such as Argentina and Mexico to consider relaxing their own marijuana policies.

In the end, the real danger posed by drug decriminalization is the one posed to the drug-war establishment, which can be eventually dismantled only via the accumulation of alternative models.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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