The government of Uruguay is considering an unorthodox approach to combating drug trafficking: legalizing and regulating marijuana sales in an effort to cut cocaine consumption and remove a significant source of funding for criminal groups.
The administration of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has announced that it plans to send Congress a proposal for a bill which would legalize the sale of marijuana, but make the government the only legitimate provider of the drug. It is currently legal to possess the drug. Under the plan, the state would sell marijuana cigarettes to adults who signed up to a government register, which would allow officials to monitor purchases. People who attempted to purchase more than a specified amount at a time would be required to undergo drug rehabilitation treatment.
According to El Pais, the Mujica government has framed the move as a part of a larger attempt to rein in cocaine consumption in the country. Uruguayan law enforcement has seen a significant rise in the amount of cocaine seized in recent years, usually in the form of cocaine paste, a cheaper and less refined version of the drug similar to crack. If marijuana is legalized and regulated, authorities hope it will encourage drug users to turn to this less addictive drug.
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The proposal comes amid growing concern over the influence of organized crime in the historically peaceful South American country, as InSight Crime reported in January. While Uruguay still has the lowest homicide rate in Latin America (6.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants), a May 2011 survey by polling firm Interconsult found that 62 percent of Uruguayans believe that their country is becoming more insecure. The perception is backed by the statistics; according to the country’s Interior Ministry, there were 133 homicides between January and May, up from 76 in the same period last year.
The Associated Press notes that Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro told reporters yesterday that the details of the plan need to be worked out, but if implemented it could significantly hit the illicit drug trade in the country. "The laws of the market will rule here: whoever sells the best and the cheapest will get rid of drug trafficking," Fernandez said. "We'll have to regulate farm production so there's no contraband and regulate distribution ... we must make sure we don't affect neighboring countries or be accused of being an international drug production center."
Despite this optimism, it is still not clear whether the plan would have the intended effect on cocaine consumption and crime. Drug experts in the country have pointed out that while it might make marijuana consumption safer, as users would not have to deal with criminal suppliers, it probably would not have much impact on cocaine use.
A version of this article appeared on the Pan-American Post.
– Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.