Uruguay: Getting into the marijuana business

Will state control over producing and distributing marijuana curb drug violence in Latin America?

Uruguay wants to get its people high, said Raul Gallegos in The Globe and Mail (Canada). José Mujica, the country’s 77-year-old president, has drafted a “revolutionary crime-fighting bill” that would give the government exclusive control over producing and distributing marijuana. As Mujica said, “Somebody has to be the first” in Latin America to attempt state control of drugs, and Uruguay is the obvious choice. Pot is already legal for personal use in Uruguay—at least one of Mujica’s cabinet members makes no secret of his own use—and the country is small, stable, and not overly dependent on U.S. trade. The plan “offers glimmers of a market-based solution to the drug violence ravaging Latin America.”

If it’s such a great idea, why was there no warning? asked Daniel Gallo in La Nación (Argentina). Officials here had not one inkling that our neighbor Uruguay was planning a drastic step that’s “certain to affect Argentina.” Drug addiction specialists fear that users here will start crossing the border to get their fix and that crime in the border region will go up. Maybe Uruguay is hoping for a boom in “drug tourism,” as the Netherlands has had, but is that really a reason to undermine drug policy for the rest of us?

Unilateralism is not the way to go, said El Nuevo Siglo (Colombia) in an editorial. Drug trafficking is “an international scourge” and can only be effectively fought through a joint effort of our whole region. It’s simply not true that the continent is losing the fight against trafficking and related crime, as Mujica contends. Colombia, for example, has been “hugely successful” in dismantling the criminal gangs that waged war here for decades. The Organization of American States should convene a special session to discuss the Uruguayan proposal and analyze its implications for other countries. And given that Colombia is “the most effective country on the continent in fighting drug trafficking,” the rest of the region would do well to listen to our “words of caution.”

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Calm down—Mujica isn’t proposing some kind of druggie free-for-all, said El País (Uruguay). Pot won’t be stacked on grocery shelves so that anyone can buy in bulk and become a dealer. To buy from government-run shops, users will have to register, and their consumption will be limited to two packs of 20 cigarettes per month. Digital tags on the cigarettes and chemical signatures will distinguish each pack, so authorities will be able to trace whether someone is selling. In fact, this is the whole point of having the state sell pot. As it is now, marijuana users are forced to buy from drug gangs, a transaction that enriches criminals and endangers users. By “whitening” the black market, Uruguay can collect taxes and protect its citizens—just as it did when it legalized prostitution. As Mujica says, “Ignoring the problem is no solution.”

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