Uruguay was named as the “country of the year” in 2013 by The Economist, and the The Guardian wrote on 12 December: “Heroic Uruguay deserves a Nobel peace prize for legalising cannabis.” Both reports came shortly after Uruguay’s decision to become the first country in the world to legalise and regulate the production, sale and consumption of cannabis.
Uruguay’s vision to try an alternative approach to the global “war on drugs” is not surprising, given its record of progressive legislation. In 1913, Uruguay became the first Latin American country to grant divorce rights to women; in 1932 the country enacted into law a Constitutional provision of 1917 giving voting rights to women; in 2008, it passed a law that allows same-sex “civil unions.”
Under the new law legalising cannabis, which will come into force from April 2014, individuals can grow up to six plants and possess up to 40 grams of marijuana per month. The government will administer and regulate the supply of cannabis through three entities: the National Institute for Cannabis Regulation will distribute seeds in order to control production; cannabis clubs of 15 to 45 members will be permitted to grow up to 99 plants annually; users can also buy cannabis from licensed pharmacies at an affordable $1 per gram. Users will have to register in a confidential national database only available to pharmacists; this will also be a way to enforce a monthly limit for each consumer.
The new law comes with some caveats as well: marijuana consumption is limited to Uruguayan nationals above 18 years of age, and advertising is prohibited.
There is also considerable opposition to the new policy, both from political parties and civil society. The bill was passed by a narrow margin of 16 to 13 in the senate. While critics say the new law will increase consumption, a large body of empirical evidence suggests otherwise, as is evident in the 5.4% rate of users in the Netherlands, where the use of cannabis is decriminalised. Compare this to an average of 6.8% in Europe, where possession is illegal in most countries.
The UN’s International Narcotics Control Board has criticised Uruguay for violating UN treaties on drugs. But Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has upheld his country’s right to try a new solution and called for the support of the global community. He has also pointed out that there was no objection when the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington recently legalised cannabis.
The new law must also be seen in the context of the global “war on drugs.” Despite the enormous resources used against drug trafficking, consumption and drug-related violence continues unabated. A clear example is Mexico, where former President Felipe Calderon made the “war on drugs” his top priority and deployed the armed forces and police against traffickers. Six years into his term, the situation had worsened, leaving an estimated 60,000 dead.
Latin America has been a victim of the U.S.-led war on drugs, declared 40 years ago by President Richard Nixon. The U.S. has forced the armed forces and police in the region to use toxic chemical sprays on agricultural land to eradicate coca cultivation, and helicopter gun-ships and lethal weapons to fight traffickers.
At the same time, the drugs industry is also fuelled by the legal and illegal flow of arms and funds from the U.S. Smaller countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have become the most violent countries globally – with the highest homicide rates – largely because of traffickers, who use them as transit points to supply drugs to North America.
The U.S. has supplied more than $20 billion in weapons, funds, and intelligence liaison to Latin American countries ostensibly for the war on drugs. It has militarised the issue by linking the drugs trade to its defence industries and intelligence agencies.
There is a growing perception that the so-called war on drugs has a broader political agenda; the U.S.-led war is seen to resemble its earlier war against communism, which eventually destroyed democracies and created right-wing military dictatorships in Latin America. During the Contra War (1979-1989) against Nicaragua, for example, the U.S. patronised dictators like Manuel Noriega of Panama and allowed drug trafficking in return for his support to defeat the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which has offices in many Latin American countries, is alleged to continue the work the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) once performed. Such suspicion led Bolivian President Evo Morales to close the DEA office in his country in 2008.
The American pressure on Latin American law enforcement agencies to focus excessively on this war also distorts local law and order priorities. A recent example is the Honduras, where the military ousted democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. The coup d’état came shortly after Zelaya’s shift to the left-leaning ALBA Bloc, led by then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The Honduran military is supported by U.S. military and development aid: its officers get training and the Honduran military receives more than $400 million in aid and $1.4 billion in military equipment sales. This becomes an avenue of political pressure in the “war on drugs.”
Drug trafficking is a demand-driven business, led by demand from the U.S. and Europe. Workable solutions will have to recognise the reality of consumption and demand. It is this realisation that has brought about calls for the legalisation of certain drugs by Latin American leaders. In their address at the UN General Assembly in 2013, Colombia, Guatemala and Costa Rica, among other Latin American countries, argued that the effects of trafficking have been worse than the drugs themselves. It is in this context that Uruguay has taken the first step.
The new Uruguayan law breaks the dependence of drug users on traffickers. The stronger and more expensive drugs sold by cartels will become less appealing to consumers, who are likely to find legal cannabis safer and inexpensive. The government will also save on policing costs and earn approximately $10 million in revenue by taxing the consumption and production of cannabis.
Uruguay’s policy will impact its neighbours. Brazil is looking at passing tougher penalties for drug consumers, while the Argentine head of the anti-narcotics agency has already called for a debate. The Uruguayan “experiment” – as President Mujica puts it – is timely and inevitable, given the growing global consensus that the war on drugs has failed and that options to deal with the issue must be explored.
Ambassador Viswanathan is Distinguished Fellow, Latin America Studies, Gateway House. He is the former Indian Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, and Consul General in Sao Paulo.
Hari Seshasayee is Researcher, Latin American Studies Programme, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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