Legalize It

Uruguay’s legalization of marijuana may signal an end to Latin America’s war on drugsOVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, governments large and small have bucked the prohibition- ist, punitive war-on-drugs paradigm wrought by Richard Nixon in 1971. Amsterdam has its marijuana and hashish coffee shops; Portugal decrim- inalized the consumption of all drugs in 2001. Barcelona and the Basque country in Spain introduced cannabis clubs a few years back; 20 states and the District of Co- lumbia in the U.S.—and just this month, Illinois—have legislated the legal medical use of marijuana; Wash- ington and Colorado voted to accept and regulate the recreational production, dis- tribution, possession and use of weed. Bolivia has success- fully fought for the right of its inhabitants to cultivate and chew coca leaf pretty much as they wish. But until recently, no country had come close to legalizing the entire marijua- na chain from cultivation to consumption. Uruguay, a Lat- in American nation that has been at the vanguard of social trends in the hemisphere since the early 20th century, is now about to do so.On July 31 the Uruguayan lower house of Congress passed a bill submitted by President José Mujica to legalize the production, com- merce and use of marijuana, through a complex system of pharmacy concessions, auto- production and clubs. The country’s Senate still has to vote on the issue, but since the left-of-center Frente Amplio coalition has a comfortable majority, there is virtually no doubt as to the final outcome. Uruguay will become the first nation in the world to proceed in this fashion. Its decision will provoke multiple reac- tions, ranging from admira- tion to censure, and may well be a harbinger of things to come. Especially since Presi- dent Mujica’s main motiva- tion was the utter failure of the long-standing internation- al, Latin American and Uru- guayan policy of throwing small-time pot consumers in jail while devoting enormous resources to combatting the wider drug trade.The Uruguayans are doing what an increasing number of policymakers throughout Latin America are beginning to contemplate, and for good reason: the war on drugs has failed miserably. Its costs have been exorbitantly high and its results self-evidently low. Marijuana is no more perni- cious a substance than alcohol or tobacco, and perhaps less. Moreover, the violence, corruption and crime associated with the drug trade can be significantly re- duced by making it legal, much as the repeal in 1933 of the American prohibition on the sale of alcohol helped close the cycle of gangland violence across the U.S. No one believed then, or hopes now, that legalization could end all the problems created by the drug trade; suggesting it is a straw man erected by opponents of le- galization in hopes of weakening the arguments for decriminalization.This explains why so many distinguished Latin Americans, from former Presidents Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox in Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, César Gaviria and Ricardo Lagos of Brazil, Colombia and Chile, respectively, to writ- ers such as the late Carlos Fuentes and Nobel laureates Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, and businessmen like Mexico’s TV magnate Ricardo Salinas Pliego, have all voiced sup- port in one way or another for the decriminalization of marijuana use. This is also why the region’s largest city, Mexico’s capital, has begun a vigorous debate on pot de- criminalization, which may well lead to legislation this fall. The city’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, has called for a broad discussion; the city council is poised to consider bills legalizing consumption and cannabis-production clubs; and in late July, a group of former Cabinet officials of the past four Mexican administrations, along with one of the country’s leading public intellectuals and one of its most vocal civil-society anticrime activists, called for legalization in Mexico City.It is not surprising that Uruguay and Mexico City may become bellwethers of a hemispheric trend. Uruguay, a haven from crime and violence for over a century in Latin America, has seen its proverbial, sleepy peace and quiet perturbed by drug- linked delinquency in recent times. Mexico has paid an enormous price for former President Felipe Calderón’s ill-advised and largely futile, no-holds-barred war on drug kingpins and cartels: more than 70,000 dead, more than $50 billion spent, at least 24,000 disappearances. It is time for a change, and, at last, it seems to be in the offing.Castañeda was Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 2000 to’ 03

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