Uruguayan drug legalisation
Thinking the unthinkable
A bold, if fuzzy, proposal
Jun 30th 2012 | MONTEVIDEO | from the print edition
RECENTLY Latin American leaders have begun to rebel against rigid drug prohibition and the decades-long “war” on drugs. So when Uruguay’s government this month released a document suggesting it would legalize and take control of the sale of cannabis in the country, this seemingly bold step attracted much media attention. Not so fast: the proposal amounts to one line in a 20-page report on the government’s strategy for tackling rising crime. And the details have not been hammered out even among members of President José Mujica’s cabinet, let alone in the country’s Congress. Nevertheless, something is stirring in Uruguay.
The National Drugs Board, which advises the president, favours a plan under which production of cannabis would be a state monopoly. The defence minister said he thought private companies should do the job, under government supervision. Mr Mujica announced that the state would distribute the drug in doses of no more than 30 grams a month, and track customers in a government register. Users would have to present the butts of their smoked cigarettes before receiving new stocks. No, such a database would be too authoritarian, said the defence minister.
Uruguay is one of very few countries where possession of drugs for personal use has never been a crime. About 5.6% of Uruguayans aged between 15 and 64 smoke cannabis, according to United Nations’ annual World Drug Report, released this week. That is slightly higher than the world average, but lower than in the United States and much of western Europe. These consumers fuel a business estimated to be worth between $35m and $75m. By legalizing supply, the government hopes to wrest these revenues from traffickers and use them to improve treatment and health facilities. They also aim to price cannabis cheaply enough to tempt users away from harder drugs such as cocaine and crack.
Mr Mujica’s left-of-centre government has a majority in both houses of Congress. But it is a narrow one. Even when officials have finalised a bill, approval is not certain. In 2010 Luis Lacalle Pou, an opposition congressman, proposed a bill to legalize cannabis cultivation for personal use. It was defeated. He says the issue is still not being treated seriously. Claudio Paolillo, the editor of Búsqueda, a weekly newspaper, dismisses the government’s proposal as a “smoke screen” to divert attention from a crime wave.
Nevertheless, the thinking by Uruguay’s government is the most daring in a growing debate about drug policy in Latin America. Organised criminal bands that traffic drugs—and the attempts to repress them—have wreaked havoc in the region, with murder rates soaring in Mexico and Central America. But world demand for illegal drugs has remained stable, according to the World Drug Report. The UN reckons that total production of cocaine in the Andes has declined somewhat since 2005, with a fall in Colombia partly offset by rises in Peru and Bolivia. But it admits there is uncertainty about the production estimates. Latin America has long since ceased to be merely a drug producer, with consumption rising fast in recent years. Argentina and Brazil have both suffered crack epidemics.
The leaders of Guatemala and Costa Rica recently called for a debate about legalizing cocaine. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos said he would favour this, if other countries led the way. Brazil is poised to vote on whether to decriminalize personal use of all drugs in June. Argentina has begun to debate a bill that would do something similar.
If Uruguay does approve the controlled legal sale of cannabis, that will put it in breach of the UN’s drug-control conventions, which prohibit drug sales for non-medical use. Many Latin American leaders think that this blanket ban has demonstrably failed, and want to be free to experiment with other approaches. The next step is for the region to mount a diplomatic offensive to reform the conventions.
from the print edition | The Americas