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A Sensible Marijuana Policy, From Uruguay

Uruguayan President José Mujica has a plan to reduce crime related to illegal marijuana trafficking in his country: get rid of the illegal trafficking by making marijuana sales legal.

Under Mujica’s proposed law, which must be approved by the country’s Congress, the federal government would take over marijuana production and distribution, acting as the country’s sole legal source of the drug. Marijuana consumption is already legal in Uruguay.

“We think a ban on certain drugs is creating more problems in society than the drug itself,” Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro said in explaining the rationale for the law. The president and the minister hope that, by creating an alternative to the black market, they can cut into criminal gangs’ profits and reduce violent conflicts between rival drug traffickers.

As I have written before, there are few good reasons for marijuana to be illegal and many reasons for it to be legal - in the United States, not just in Uruguay. But the reasons cited by Uruguay’s practical-minded leaders are a good starting point.

Besides providing a source of hefty profits for criminals, America’s drug laws have produced a serious problem of selective enforcement. Because the laws are so regularly flouted, police officers have wide discretion when using them as a rationale to harass those who otherwise are guilty of only such non-crimes as being young, male or black. Meanwhile, those whose smoking is tolerated are encouraged to believe they can violate other laws with equal impunity.

Uruguay’s impact on the problem of drugs, and drug laws, is likely to be limited. With a population of only 3.4 million, Uruguay is a tiny part of the global marijuana market. The U.S., on the other hand, has a population of more than 311 million, 42 percent of whom have used marijuana, according to a 2008 World Health Organization survey.

Outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who has said he plans to leave Mexico after his term expires for fear of violence from drug cartels there, has pointed the finger directly, and rightly, at us for providing a market for traffickers. After long supporting the U.S. “war on drugs,” Calderón suggested last year that if Americans “are determined and resigned to consume drugs, then they should seek market alternatives in order to cancel the criminals’ stratospheric profits.” Mexico itself decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD and methamphetamines, in 2009.

Since Calderón made his statement about “market alternatives,” President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has also spoken in favor of legalization - but only if it can be done as part of a concerted, multi-national effort. Legalization “could be a solution, only if everybody does it at the same time,” he said.

At a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, earlier this year, Latin American leaders joined in pronouncing the war on drugs a failure. “The strategy that we have followed these 30 or 40 years has practically failed, and we have to recognize it,” Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said. While the war on drugs has stumbled forward, the drug wars afflicting much of Latin America have raged. In Mexico alone, more than 50,000 people are believed to have been killed in drug-related violence since 2006, including about 12,000 deaths in 2011 alone.

Amid this carnage and multi-decade track record of failure, you might expect only a moralistic anti-drug crusader to insist that the use and sale of marijuana should remain a crime, thus turning nearly half the country - by its own admission - into criminals. But it so happens that the prime defender of the status quo in American drug policy is a man who has written openly about his own teenage drug use: Barack Obama. A new biography by David Maraniss, “Barack Obama: The Story,” tells of even more marijuana-fueled exploits than recounted by the president himself in his 1995 memoir “Dreams from My Father.” Several of these involve “the Choomwagon,” a Volkswagen microbus owned by one of the young Obama’s friends, which gained its nickname from the slang term for marijuana, “choom.”

The president has said that the choices he made in his youth were “misguided” and “a serious mistake.” But he has also said that “a lot of us make mistakes when we’re kids.” To my knowledge, he has not said that he wishes he had been arrested at the time, or that his “serious mistake” was so personally devastating to him that it is worth pursuing a policy that results in thousands of deaths a year in an attempt to stop others from ending up like him. In fact, Obama seems happiest when he is given excuses not to talk about marijuana policy at all.

At Cartagena, however, Obama insisted that “legalization is not the answer.” His answer is to continue to do just what we have done since Richard Nixon occupied the Oval Office.

As the saying has it, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. A definition of hypocrisy might be doing the same thing as other people and yet forcing them to accept different results. When it comes to drug policy, Obama is guilty of both.

Mujica has said he is willing to experiment with his government-sponsored legalization plan because “someone has to be the first” to try it. The U.S. will not be that first someone. It probably won’t be the second, either. But whether we are third or 33rd, I hope we someday have a leader with enough sense to follow in Uruguay’s footsteps.

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One Response to "A Sensible Marijuana Policy, From Uruguay"

  • Jillian Galloway
    July 12, 2012 - 1:13 pm

    It’s about time our country recognized that a lot of Americans like to get high with something other than alcohol. If the government really wanted to make people safe then it would legalize every recreational drug that’s safer than booze.

    That would retain alcohol as the most harmful recreational drug you can legally buy, and at the same time would give people the option of legally choosing drugs that are safer than alcohol – and that’s definitely NOT something we can do today.

    If the government really wants to keep us safe then why is it bending over backwards to make us unsafe?