Uruguay legalizes marijuana: A white flag in the war on drugs?

Uruguay's senate passed a bill legalizing the cultivation, sale, and use of marijuana, putting it on the vanguard of drug policy reform in Latin America - and the world.

Matilde Campodonico/AP
People attend a demonstration in support of the legalization of marijuana in Montevideo, Uruguay, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013.

Is it the beginning of the end of conservative drug policies in Latin America?

Perhaps. Uruguay is set to become the first nation in the world to legalize the cultivation, sale, and use of marijuana after the senate yesterday gave its support in a 16-13 vote. The legislation now awaits President Jose Mujica, who is expected to sign the bill into law before the end of the year.

“Einstein said there’s nothing more absurd than trying to change results by always repeating the same formula,” President Mujica told La Republica newspaper. “That’s why we’re trying other methods.”

Uruguay’s move has been described as an attempt to curb its costs in combating drug trafficking, the price tag of which is $80 million annually.

The financial and social cost of drugs across the region has grown in recent years. And many Latin American countries have started stepping out to question the status quo of zero tolerance on drugs.

Mexico's "drug war" has spurred gruesome violence by cartels there, and spilled across borders into Central America. And eradication efforts in Bolivia have prompted questions about a leaf that, while used to make cocaine, has been a sacred part of Andean society for thousands of years.

In an in-depth story for The Christian Science Monitor last year, Sara Miller Llana noted a “fundamental shift in the drug war in Latin America – one that is creating a tense new relationship between the US and its southern neighbors.”

The relationship between Latin America and the US has always been at its most fraught over the war on drugs, ever since Richard Nixon launched the initiative in the 1970s. Nowhere has Washington's scolding finger been more in the face of its Latin American counterparts. Nowhere has Latin America felt it has fewer options than to just acquiesce, dependent as it is on US aid and military might to overcome the cartels that control narcotics trafficking.

But in the past five years, frustration has mounted. Gruesome drug crimes have brought record levels of violence to swaths of Mexico and Central America, despite the billions that the US has poured into the antinarcotics fight.

Uruguay now appears to be on the front line of the drug policy revolution.

Latin American prisons are notoriously overcrowded, with many people behind bars on drug-related charges. One-third of Uruguay’s prison population is incarcerated for drug-trafficking-related crimes, reports Reuters.

Uruguay, a country of 3.3 million people situated between Brazil and Argentina, is one of the safest countries in the region, and experiences limited drug violence. However, it’s a key trafficking route for cocaine and marijuana from Bolivia and Paraguay, respectively.

"There is a desperate call from Latin America for peace, which includes a new model for drug policies," Milton Romani, Uruguay's ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) told the Monitor last year.

Hundreds of pro-legalization and alternative drug policy groups are enthusiastic about Uruguay's move, which is garnering praise from politicians including former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who also chairs the Global Commission on Drug Policy), and dozens of Mexican legislators. But the majority of Uruguayans are not in favor of the change.

A recent poll by Equipos Consultores found that 58 percent of citizens oppose the legalization of marijuana. Critics say the bill, which limits the drug’s sale to 40 grams per registered user per month, will encourage addiction and only add to Uruguay’s drug woes. It’s also viewed with a weary eye from neighboring nations that fear potential spillover from a legalized marijuana market.

Uruguay has long been on the forefront of social reform, with Mujica, a former guerrilla, legalizing gay marriage, for example. But he isn’t alone in looking for a new approach to tackling the drug problem in Latin America, even among more conservative politicians. “Mano dura,” or iron-fisted, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina called last year for an entire rethink of the war on drugs, including the option of the government running a legally regulated drug market. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos floated similar ideas, in 2011 stating that the war on drugs was stuck on a “stationary bike.” As the Monitor wrote in its cover story:

The idea of pursuing more liberalized drug policies rather than harsher punishments is hardly novel in Latin America. But such notions are usually championed by intellectuals and academics on the left. They have rarely been promoted by sitting presidents.

Yet 2009 marked a hinge moment: A Latin American commission on drug policy headed by three former presidents, from Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, published a report declaring the war on drugs a failure – one that desperately needed to shift from repression to prevention. Two years later, the group pulled former officials and business leaders from around the world into the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which went further, rallying nations to consider ways to regulate drugs rather than just crack down on their use.

Latin American leaders have not necessarily agreed with Mujica’s proposal in Uruguay, however, with some saying legalizing marijuana misses the larger point: cocaine is the much bigger problem.

Uruguay’s bill gives the government 120 days to set up a regulatory commission to oversee quality, cultivation, price, and consumption.

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