Is South America drawing down the drug war?

Uruguay has become the first country in the world to fully legalize pot — could others follow suit?

Man smoking pot
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico))

Drug policy, it seems, makes strange bedfellows. In October, Aerosmith glad-handed with Uruguay President José Mujica. The band praised the president's austere lifestyle, his charitable contributions, and his stance on legalizing and regulating marijuana, which Uruguay stands to become the first country to do once legislation clears its Senate.

It was an unlikely scene: The tanned rockers in skinny pants and silver jewelry, handing an autographed guitar to a rumpled leftist former guerrilla turned flower farmer. The publicity brought to Uruguay by the "experiment," as Mujica calls it, has turned the small country sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina into a headline-grabber the world over.

Uruguay's "experiment"

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Uruguay is the second smallest nation in South America, and has one of the smallest populations in the region. Peter Hakim and Cameron Combs of the Inter-American Dialogue, writing in the Los Angeles Times, point out that Uruguay's 22-ton consumption of marijuana annually is tiny compared to, for example, California, which consumes some 500 tons each year. Because Uruguay is neither a big player nor a big consumer in the drug trade, legalization may have less of a social impact there than, say, next-door neighbor Brazil.

If the bill becomes law, Uruguay will be the first country in the world to allow adults over 18 to register and purchase marijuana from government-regulated pharmacies and private clubs. In a bid to undercut the prices of illegal drug dealers, the government plans on selling the drug for $1 a gram, an eighth of what it costs at medical marijuana facilities in the U.S. Additionally, citizens would be allowed to grow a specified number of plants for their own household use.

Mujica's appeals for legalization are practical and financial — he doesn't like the idea that his country is supporting stoners to "smoke freely and go to the seaside boardwalk," as he said.

Instead, he argues that the economics of the war on drugs just aren't sustainable. He quoted statistics that Uruguay recovers roughly $5 million worth in illegal drugs each year while allocating roughly $80 million to fight them, according to AFP. "As a business, this would be a disaster," he said in an interview in August. Add in the cost of regional bloodshed, and he reasons that the drug war is just too high a price for his nation to pay.

'The taboo is broken'

He’s not alone. Leaders from many of the big regional players in South America — including some staunch US allies — are beginning to reconsider their positions on marijuana, as well as their participation in the US-led drug war. With Uruguay’s moves and recent legalization efforts in Colorado and Washington, many countries are wondering if a new trend might be sweeping the region.

GlobalPost, in an 11-part special series released earlier this year, concluded that "the taboo is broken" when it comes to openly envisioning an end to the region's drug crackdown.

Two of Mexico's former presidents have come out in support of decriminalization, and Colombia's current president has said he would support regional legalization efforts. Argentina's president has hinted that she favors decriminalization, while Guatemala's president has publicly praised efforts at reform in the United States.

Politicians point to the toll of the war on drugs as a major factor, but say that hypocrisy may be the biggest motivator. As Colombia's top law enforcement official argued, why had the United States "legalized marijuana in two states while we are still dying in the fight against drug trafficking."

An advisor to Mexico's president also noted the double standard, saying, "Obviously we can't treat a product as illegal in Mexico and try to prevent it being trafficked to the United States when it has legal status there."

Whither Mexico?

Many eyes are focused on Mexico, which has arguably become one of the drug war’s most violent battlefields since former president Felipe Calderón “declared war” on his country’s cartels.

After several years of heightened violence, and with state-by-state legalization looming to the north, Mexico will likely look to push the reset button on cross-border drug policy with the US in the years ahead.

This shift in focus is something that Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has been arguing all along. "This doesn't mean that we don't pay attention to other crimes, or that we don't fight drug trafficking, but the central theme at this time is diminishing violence in the country," Peña Nieto announced on the campaign trail in 2012.

Some prominent Mexican officials are even publicly exploring options including exporting marijuana as a commodity, as Reuters reports.

In fact, GlobalPost wonders if marijuana legalization in the U.S. — and possibly Mexico itself — will "undermine the Mexican government's rationale for pressing on with the drug war" at all.

Envisioning the aftermath of the war on drugs

So what would it actually mean for the war on drugs if nations like Mexico rejected the idea and instead pushed through Uruguayan-style policies of marijuana legalization or decriminalization?

Perhaps the most prominent hypothesis came earlier this year from the Organization of American States, the U.S.-backed regional network of Western hemisphere countries. In a sprawling report that encompassed the past, present, and future of illegal drugs in the region, the OAS offered a series of thought experiments about what the region's drug policies might look like by 2025.

In one such scenario, OAS researchers present a future where the majority of Latin American and European nations support legalizing marijuana, and band together to present the UN with "modernized" new international drug laws designed to replace the current restrictive treaties.

By this reckoning, the idea of a regional drug war is all but erased, although the authors predict no country will go so far as to legalize harder drugs. But, the report notes, potential marijuana legalization could still level the playing field for countries struggling with drug crime, putting more taxable income into the hands of governments and less into the pockets of drug cartels.

But legalizing marijuana is no cure-all.

While abolishing the U.S.-led war on drugs might lead to fresh strategies in the region, it won't solve much deeper systemic problems, according to scholars.

"Neither the legalization of marijuana nor the decriminalization of harder drugs," Bruce Bagley, an expert on drug trafficking in Latin America, writes, "will constitute panaceas for the resolution of the problems created by proliferating crime, corruption, and violence" in South and Central America.

These bigger problems will require countries to look at their own "seriously flawed institutions," he argues, and work to make them more just, more accountable, and more transparent.

One goal it would accomplish, though, would be to send a strong signal to US government officials on the perceived weaknesses of current policy.

Just don’t expect them to listen, say some researchers.

U.S. drug policymakers likely won’t be introspective anytime soon, argues criminologist Peter Reuter, as long as change is politically riskier than current policy.

Even as regional allies start to waver, the United States remains "mystifyingly persistent" in its drug war strategy, says Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic. "Sticking with it is arguably delusional," Friedersdorf says. "But that angle is seemingly never pursued. As ever, the utter failure of American drug policy is taken by the establishment as evidence that persisting is of even more importance."

But with 10 additional US states considering marijuana legalization, and with their southern neighbors grumbling, the pressure on the US federal government isn’t easing anytime soon.

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