Uruguay is a country that rarely draws international attention. Sandwiched snugly between its much larger, much rowdier neighbours, Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay is — and has been for decades — a relative oasis of calm in the region, even earning itself the sobriquet “the Switzerland of South America”.
But all that could be set to change, for Uruguay is on the verge of becoming the first ever Latin American country to decriminalise the consumption of marijuana. Not only that, it will also be the first country in the world to directly control and regulate the production of cannabis for recreational use.
All that remains for the government’s new marijuana legislation to become law is for it to pass through the country’s Senate, where the coalition government enjoys a respectable majority. If, as expected, the law gets passed, the state will begin granting production and distribution licenses to hand-picked companies. Each individual home grower will be allowed to have a maximum of six plants each as well as form “cannabis clubs” with up to 45 members and 99 plants. Those consumers who prefer not to grow their own supply will have a consumption quota of 40 grams per month, which must be purchased from pharmacies.
A Rare Leader
The new marijuana legislation has been spearheaded by Uruguay’s veteran left-wing president José Mujica. A former guerilla leader during the dark years of dictatorship in the 1970s and almost certainly the world’s poorest national leader, having decided to donate around 90 percent of his $12,000 monthly presidential salary to charity, Mujica is about as far removed from your archetypal 21st century politician as one could imagine.
On the international stage, he has proven himself to be willing, time and again, to deviate from the official script. In 2012, he delivered a sumptuous critique of the UN’s sustainability agenda at the Rio +20 Conference. More recently, amidst the fallout from the Snowden affair he masterfully ridiculed Europe’s refusal to grant air space to the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales.
On the home front Mujica has passed a whole gamut of progressive social laws, including legislation for abortion and same-sex marriage. Yet with 63 percent of Uruguayans still opposing marijuana legalisation, he now faces a steep uphill slog in persuading the country’s electorate of the need for such radical change in the drug policy arena.
“We are a country of old people, it’s hard for us to understand and attend to the needs of the young,” says Mujica. The ultimate aim of the legislation, he argues, is to put an end to the “secrecy and clandestine nature” of the marijuana trade, and “expose the market to the light of day.”
A Growing Trend
By decriminalising marijuana, Uruguay could well set a game-changing precedent for drug policy in Latin America. After suffering for decades from the devastating side effects (violence, social breakdown, political corruption and extortion…) of a drug trade that moves vast quantities of cocaine, crystal meth and marijuana in one direction (northwards, to the U.S.), and freshly bank-laundered dollars and guns in the other, support is growing on the continent for an alternative approach to the fundamentally flawed model of blanket drug prohibition and repression currently in use.
What’s more, the new ideas are gaining a surprising level of traction and support among some of the continent’s political, cultural and business elite. They include the former president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Peruvian-born writer and Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox, both former presidents of Mexico — a country that is struggling to stem the tide of bloodshed from one of history’s most brutal drug wars.
Once dubbed the “cowboy” president of Mexico and reputedly a close friend of the Bush family, Vicente Fox might seem an unlikely champion of marijuana decriminalisation. A few months ago, however, his NGO Centro Fox organized an international symposium dedicated to the issue. The event was organized in partnership with Diego Pellicer Inc, a company that has recently made big acquisitions of medical marijuana dispensary chains in the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado — all part of its master plan to become the first national brand of retail cannabis in the U.S.
The general consensus among the event’s 10,000 participants could not have been clearer: The current prohibitionist model has failed. Rather than reducing consumption, it has had huge knock-on effects that have merely exacerbated the problems it’s meant to address.
On the issue of medical marijuana, speakers spoke of the “abundant and sound empirical evidence” that marijuana use can substantially relieve certain health problems. As such, rather than treating Cannabis consumption as merely a legal issue, it should instead be viewed from across a spectrum of perspectives (social, healthcare, judicial, economic, national security and environmental).
Also, as a direct neighbour of the United States, Mexico would have to take into account the state of play of Cannabis legalislation in that country. But even in U.S., things appear to be changing, albeit slowly.
The Economic Case for Legalisation
Gone are the days of the gung-ho “Just Say No” campaigns of the 1980s. Just last year, two U.S. states — Colorado and Washington — shocked the nation by legalising the sale of marijuana for recreational use. According to Business Insider, another eight could well join them in 2013. Perhaps most interestingly, the debate on legalisation is increasingly being shaped by economic rationale.
This is hardly a surprise given that the international narcotics trade is estimated to generate somewhere in the region of 360 billion dollars a year, representing around 1 percent of global GDP. If legalised, the industry could offer lucrative opportunities for companies as well as a potentially massive tax bonanza for increasingly cash-strapped central governments and local authorities.
According to a report published by the non-profit organisation Common Sense for Drug Policy, drug legalisation in the U.S. would yield tax revenue of roughly $46 billion annually, assuming legal drugs were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. Approximately $8.7 billion of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana and $38.0 billion from legalization of other drugs.
Legalizing drugs would also save roughly $41.3 billion per year in local and federal government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. Approximately $8.7 billion of the savings would result from legalization of marijuana and $32.6 billion from legalization of other drugs.
And with calls for a drastic shift in policy now coming from the least likely of quarters, including such stalwart publications as Foreign Policy magazine and military-industrial contractors like the RAND corporation, we are potentially witnessing a game-changing moment in the drug policy arena.
And that, in my humble opinion, can only be a good thing. It is about time we had a mature, sober (if you’ll excuse the pun) and reasoned debate about the drug trade, the war on drugs and their impact on the world we inhabit.
That’s not to say that legalisation represents a panacea for all of society’s drug problems. Clearly governments could abuse their newfound powers to try to tax consumption of the newly legalised drugs out of existence. But by doing so all they would end up doing is deplete their own tax revenues and drive consumers back onto the black market.
Evidently, the success of any model of legalisation will depend almost entirely on the regulatory framework that’s built up around it. That said, legalisation can surely do no worse than the current War on Drugs, which has wreaked untold damage on communities around the globe, while abectly failing in its stated aim of reducing the amount of narcotics on the market.
Perhaps one day a more sensible, pragmatic drug policy will help lift the narcotics business out of the dark corners and shadows ruled over by the Chapo Guzman’s of this world and, as Mujica put it, bring it back out into the “light of day”. But for that to happen the Mujicas of this world will have to overcome fierce resistance from all the institutions and individuals that currently owe their living and vast wealth and power to the illegal drugs trade and, of course, the no less lucrative War on Drugs. Many of those institutions and individuals are well-connected and immensely powerful, and will lever all their influence to preserve their privileges…
(But that, dear reader, will have to be the focus of my next article).