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

Uruguay's proposal to legalize marijuana sales – and make its government the sole seller – reflects a growing worldwide urge to find new and less violent solutions to an old but deadly drug war

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A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent shot and killed a suspected drug trafficker in Honduras over the weekend after the suspect reached for a gun, according to U.S. officials. That’s better drug-war news than last month’s tragedy, when Honduran cops, accompanied by DEA agents (who U.S. officials say did not fire their weapons), accidentally shot and killed four civilians, including two pregnant women, on the Mosquito Coast. Given how overrun Central America is by narcotrafficking and narcoviolence — Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate — the latest incident probably won’t raise too many hackles. Still, it will raise questions about escalating U.S. involvement in antidrug interdiction abroad.

But another, just as important piece of drug-war news offers a counterpoint to Operation Anvil in Honduras. Late last week, the small and stable South American nation of Uruguay (pop. 3.3 million) proposed legalizing and monitoring marijuana sales — making the government, in fact, the sole legal seller. The purpose of the unprecedented bill, which Uruguayan President José Mujica calls an anticrime measure, is to preempt the often violent black market where marijuana is illegally sold (marijuana use itself is legal in Uruguay) and channel the $750 million that Uruguayan pot users spend on the drug each year into public coffers. “The traditional [interdiction] approach hasn’t worked,” Mujica said. “Someone has to be the first” to try this.

The proposal, which still has to pass Uruguay’s Congress, is indeed the first to be lit up in the wake of April’s Summit of the Americas in Colombia, where host President Juan Manuel Santos and a number of other drug-war-weary Latin American leaders told the U.S. the same thing: that the traditional interdiction strategy Washington so obstinately defends no longer works and that it’s time to try new tactics, including marijuana legalization. Uruguay’s Defense Minister argued last week that spiraling drug violence in regions like Latin America, as well as the spiraling costs of drug interdiction and incarceration worldwide, may even be a bigger crisis “than the drugs themselves.”

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

That argument is growing louder in the U.S. Polls show that half of Americans now support legalizing marijuana, which they consider no more harmful than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco if consumed moderately and which accounts for as much as half of the revenue that Mexico’s bloodthirsty drug cartels earn. Meanwhile, pro-legalization politicians like Beto O’Rourke of El Paso, Texas, who just ousted eight-term incumbent Congressman Silvestre Reyes in the state’s Democratic primary, are starting to win elections.

The Uruguay plan would let the government sell marijuana cigarettes to citizens (not foreigners) who are at least 18 years old, who would be allowed to buy a certain amount of pot each month. The state would exert strict quality controls over legal marijuana production as well as set prices; taxes from the sales would fund drug-addiction treatment and rehabilitation.

One of the legislation’s core rationales is that consumers would no longer have to deal with criminal gangs, which also sell harder drugs like heroin and cocaine and would now be deprived of marijuana profits. (Uruguay has one of South America’s lowest crime rates, but violence is rising, since traffickers increasingly use the country to transship drugs to Africa and then Europe.) Mujica also believes — bucking the arguments of drug-war conservatives who insist marijuana is a gateway drug to harder drugs — that if users have legal access to marijuana, they’ll turn away from more-addictive drugs like cocaine.

(MORE: Marijuana Should Be Decriminalized)

Will the scheme work if Uruguay’s Congress, which is controlled by Mujica’s party, turns on? Studies suggest that Portugal’s decade-long experiment with marijuana decriminalization has worked, or at least hasn’t failed, and that marijuana is not a significant gateway drug. But making ganja a state-run industry is uncharted territory — a little like Franklin Roosevelt taking over Budweiser after ending Prohibition — and as history so often proves, the public sector can be lousy at business. (In Colombia, Santos said Uruguay should have waited for more a regional approach.) It might have been smarter for the center-left Mujica, 77, a former Marxist guerrilla, to simply propose that a legal but tightly regulated private sector do the job. (The state would still get the tax revenue, in any case.) And his government this week is already wobbling on some of the original details, like keeping a customer registry.

Then again, Uruguay over the past decade has proved to be one of Latin America’s more competent states. (A few years ago, in fact, a U.S. diplomat told me, “It’s a shame Uruguay’s Presidents don’t head a bigger country.”) It has one of the strongest economies on the continent as well as one of the highest rankings on the U.N. Human Development Index and Transparency International’s corruption gauge. And as the pragmatic Mujica pointed out last week, experiments like this are often best undertaken by smaller nations like Uruguay and Portugal, which can serve as more-controlled laboratories for larger countries to study.

The government of one of those countries, the U.S. — which has emphatically rejected Latin America’s increasing call for marijuana legalization — is no doubt irked by Mujica’s move, especially since his bill also calls on the international community to consider marijuana legalization. So, probably, is the U.N. International Narcotics Control Board, which doesn’t even think Bolivians should be allowed to grow and chew coca leaves (the main ingredient of cocaine) for traditional uses.

But the U.S. and U.N. mind-set on drug legalization is hardly as dominant as it was a few years ago. More and more, the world seems fed up with the status quo — and willing to try new and less violent solutions to an old but deadly drug war.

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