Uruguay Pot Laws Fire Up Drug Reform in Americas

July 7, 2014

Montevideo, July 7, 2014: As Washington this month becomes the second US state to launch a legal market for recreational marijuana, just six months after Colorado also legalized it – garnering $20 million in state taxes and fees so far – Uruguay’s own initiative as the first country to legalize and regulate the production, sale and consumption of marijuana has just seen its first official “club” begin registration.

Coming four decades after the launch of the US war on drugs, with many billions of dollars spent, the political, economic and judicial systems in many countries grievously corrupted, massive illicit fortunes earned, and hundreds of thousands of people killed in related violence – and many more jailed – it would seem that such reforms may herald a larger wave of change.

The club in Uruguay, known as the Association of Cannabis Studies, began registering with the Education and Culture Ministry. It will have 40 members paying $300 to join and a monthly fee of up to $65. Under the new law, joining a marijuana-growing club is one of three legal ways to obtain pot. Licensed buyers will be able to purchase up to 10 grams a week or 40 grams a month from a network of pharmacies that is expected to be functioning by 2015.

“Change is in the air. Many countries and states in the Americas have begun to reevaluate the war on drugs in a serious way,” says Nathan Jones, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Drug Policy at the Baker Institute. “The Uruguayan reforms combined with the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington State have put more pressure on the region to liberalize.”

Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s president, has publicly stated he would review his country’s drug policies in light of the Colorado and Washington reforms. “Obviously we can’t treat a product as illegal in Mexico and try to prevent it being trafficking to the United States when it has legal status there,” he said.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has taken it further, stating he would legalize all drugs in Colombia – if the decision were accepted by the rest of the world. President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala has made similar promises.

“People are sick of over-incarceration. People are tired of laws that are overly punitive, and end up punishing certain races and socio-economic classes more than others,” says Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. “Latin American leaders are increasingly questioning why they would agree for the rich north to outsource its war south.”

A report published by the London School of Economics in May argues that the United Nations’ “repressive, one-size-fits-all,” prohibitionist approach has led not only to unsustainable levels of incarceration in the United States, but also sparked violence, corruption, and grave health issues in developing countries.

Signed by former US secretary of state George Shultz, the UK deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and three Nobel prize-winning economists, the report also pointed out that prohibitive drug policies have allowed narco-traffickers to build up a $300 billion black market for illegal substances.

The Organisation of American States has also chipped in, publishing a controversial report last year called “Scenarios for the Drug Problem in the Americas, 2013-2025. Senior leaders in the Americas recognize the high toll that violent crime has imposed on the most vulnerable countries in the hemisphere, particularly those in Central America and some of the Caribbean,” the report reads. “There is too much violence and too many innocent victims. A strong consensus emerges: we simply cannot continue with the situation as it is now.”

But formidable barriers to drug liberalization in the Americas remain. In Latin America, the biggest obstacle is politics. “With the Washington and Colorado legalizations you had the electorate speaking out and the political leadership lagging behind,” says Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City-based non-profit organization working to end the War on Drugs.

“In Latin America, it’s the opposite. There you have leaders pushing the agenda.” Polling suggests that even in Uruguay, 58% of citizens oppose the legalization of marijuana. Other countries are similarly dubious. Nadelmann expects opinion will improve after reforms are implemented, pointing to the U.S., where nationwide support for marijuana legalization jumped 10% after Washington and Colorado’s moves.

New York recently became the 23rd state, plus Washington, D.C., to legalize medical marijuana, and two states – Alaska and Oregon – are expected to have voter initiatives on their ballots this fall that would legalize marijuana recreationally.

Widespread legalization of marijuana and other drugs in the Americas is still far off. Canada, which was previously progressive in its drug policies, has turned conservative. But most drug experts agree that there is no stopping the wave of change.

But other countries have also gradually started softening their policies. In the past decade Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador and Chile have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of drugs. As the Americas chart a path towards legalisation, policy will be tested and evolve into a likely and possibly quite complex combination of public health, tax, enforcement and regulatory measures.

Drug policy is rich in irony, albeit so tragic in consequence. The last three US presidents have each, to a greater or lesser degree, acknowledged that early in their own lives they too experimented with marijuana or cocaine. Latin American leaders fume at how the world’s greatest consumer of illicit drugs lacks the moral authority to visit its bloody war on the suppliers; and how it has often subjugated that same war to its own national security interests.

And some observers wryly note that the libertarian drift of US drugs policy coincides with a combination of import substitution ¬(homegrown marijuana) and a flow of synthetic drugs from China – on whom Britain (and the US) waged war in the nineteenth century because it refused to buy their opium.