How Latin America May Lead the World in Decriminalizing Drug Use

Even as Latin American countries are at the forefront of the war against narcotraffickers, they are also pushing alternative strategies — including the legalization of drugs, particularly marijuana

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A Mexican soldier pulls up marijuana plants found in a field of blue agave in Hostotipaquillo, Jalisco state, on Sept. 27, 2012. Members of the Mexican military conducted an operation in the area, where so far they have destroyed 40 hectares of marijuana plantations and burned more than 50 tons of plants

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has never been soft on crime. The 30-year military veteran rose to power last year on the wings of his law-and-order platform, crystallized in his campaign slogan: “Iron fist, head and heart.” And he recently approved the creation of two military bases, outfitted with 2,500 soldiers, to guard against the growing presence of drug cartels that have turned Guatemala into a trafficking corridor and fueled some of the world’s highest murder rates.

Since February, though, Pérez has coupled his tough talk on crime with calls for a drastic change in crime-fighting tactics centered on the legalization and decriminalization of drugs. Legalization, he insists, should supplement military buildup to stem drug-related violence in Latin America. In September, Pérez proposed drug legalization at the U.N. General Assembly. The move angered Washington but was championed by the Presidents of Mexico and Colombia, who appealed to the General Assembly with a similar message. And last week, Pérez repeated calls for a shift in the global war on drugs during a U.N.-sponsored gathering of regional leaders in Antigua, Guatemala. “The current plan,” he told the press, “is not going to give us results.”

(MORE: Uruguay’s Plan to Legalize Marijuana Sales: Should the Rest of the World Follow?)

In the past few months, Latin American Presidents across the political spectrum have joined Pérez in spearheading a hemispheric debate on drug legalization — unprecedented for sitting heads of state. Traditional drug policy focused solely on prohibition — a method dictated by the U.S. since Richard Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration 40 years ago — has run its course, they argue. In its place, Latin America has proposed a series of measures focusing on alternative strategies, emerging as the key player in the global reform movement.

“The genie has escaped from the bottle and it isn’t going away,” Hannah Hetzer tells TIME. Hetzer, Latin America coordinator for the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance, recently returned from Uruguay, where she addressed members of parliament on the drug-legalization movement in the U.S. “More and more countries in Latin America are following their own diverse set of drug-policy reforms.”

(MORE: Legalizing Marijuana: Why Joe Biden Should Listen to Latin America’s Case)

While no Latin American nation has legalized drugs yet, several have taken steps to decriminalize narcotics. Argentina introduced a measure in Congress this year that would decriminalize the possession of all drugs for personal use. Chile’s Congress, meanwhile, is contemplating a bill that would decriminalize the cultivation of marijuana for personal use. And a Colombian court recently upheld a law that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of cocaine. Like Mexico, Colombia has also decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

But no country has proposed more drastic reform than Uruguay. President José Mujica’s center-left Broad Front party introduced a measure this summer that would not only legalize marijuana consumption but also place the government at the helm of production and distribution. The bill, which would allow citizens to purchase up to 40 g of cannabis per month, materialized as the tiny nation of 3.5 million inhabitants scrambles to battle drug-related violence.

“Our central concern is how narcotics trafficking is progressively altering certain aspects of Uruguayan culture and society,” Julio Calzada, secretary general of Uruguay’s National Committee on Drugs, tells TIME. “The proposal aspires to regulate the marijuana market with strict state control, which would allow us to  guarantee users marijuana access without being in contact with the criminal world.”

The measure, which would permit the government to regulate the estimated $40 million marijuana market, will be debated in Uruguay’s Congress for the next six months. Although party divisions exist, Calzada believes there is enough political support to approve some form of the bill next spring. Most opposition to the bill, Calzada points out, has come from marijuana users who worry about excessive government control and from physicians who fear increased rates of drug addiction.

The U.S., meanwhile, has resisted any alternatives to its prohibitionist drug policy. But signs of a possible shift are starting to bubble. Earlier this year at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, the Obama Administration said that legalization was worthy of debate. And during a visit to Mexico in March, Vice President Joe Biden called the debate over drug legalization “legitimate,” but he underlined that the Administration would not alter its stance opposing legislation.

Latin America has also encountered a roadblock in the U.N., despite repeated calls for the global organization to arrange an international conference on drug-policy alternatives that go beyond mere prohibition. Just last week, the governments of Guatemala, Colombia and Mexico issued a joint statement calling for the U.N. to exercise leadership in the war on drugs, “including regulatory and market measures, with the goal of establishing a new paradigm that keeps resources from flowing into the hands of organized crime.” There has been no response from the U.N.

While Latin America insists that policy change must be the focus of a coordinated global effort, the region seems bent on advancing reform, with or without international support. “There is a political and global need to advance the mechanisms of drug regulation that don’t rely exclusively on prohibition,” Calzada says. “We have systematically called for ample discussion on these matters on the international stage, but we have only found obstacles. Ultimately, Latin America has the autonomy to advance measures that we feel are most pertinent for our citizens.”

MORE: Four Decades Later, It’s Time to Scrap the Dead-End Drug War