The Uruguay plan would let the government sell marijuana cigarettes to citizens (not foreigners) who must be at least 18 years old and would be allowed to buy only certain amounts 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.
That argument is also growing louder in the U.S. New polls show 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 revenues 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.
One of the legislation’s core rationales is that consumers will 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” to harder drugs – that if users have legal access to less addictive marijuana, they’ll turn away from more addictive drugs like cocaine.
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. 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 proven 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 its highest rankings on both the U.N.’s 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.’s 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. mindset on drug legalization is hardly as dominant as it was just 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 more deadly drug war.