Uruguay bows out of the drug war

Last time we looked at the debate on drug legalisation, the topic was the rise in support for legal marijuana in the United States. While the US remains the big prize for both sides of the issue, one shouldn’t underestimate the capacity for experimentation by smaller countries to show the way forward.

As with the sometimes parallel case of same-sex marriage, Western Europe has typically led the way. Such moves as the official toleration of marijuana in the Netherlands and the comprehensive decriminalisation of drugs in Portugal have generally been seen as successful. While further liberalisation still attracts some resistance, there is little political will for turning the clock back.

But this month the focus has shifted to South America, where Uruguay has become the first country to officially legalise production and trade in marijuana.

This is not the first time Uruguay has been a leader in progressive policy – it was also the first country in Latin America to allow civil unions for same-sex couples, and has subsequently introduced same-sex marriage. Its drug policy is also traditionally liberal, with possession of marijuana for personal use never having been criminalised. But allowing the marijuana trade to operate legally is still a big step.

The trade will be regulated, with marijuana prices controlled by the government, but will be fully in private hands. The aim is to wipe out the existing model of a black market run by criminal gangs: as Uruguay’s president Jose Mujica explained, “We’ve given this market as a gift to the drug traffickers and that is more destructive socially than the drug itself, because it rots the whole of society.”

The usual suspects, of course, are not happy. Foremost among them this time was the drug war agency of the United Nations, the International Narcotics Control Board, which declared in a press release that Uruguay had “knowingly decided to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions” of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

The INCB’s statement focuses on the “serious consequences for people’s health” of smoking marijuana – thereby missing the point entirely, since there is no evidence that legalisation has much effect either way on consumption levels. But of course an enforcement agency is much less concerned about consequences for drug users than about consequences for its own budget and status if a legalisation model should take hold.

By far the best reply to the INCB and the drug warriors in general came from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. You should read the whole thing, but he particularly homes in on the foolishness of thinking you can tolerate drug use while leaving the prohibition of the drug trade in place:

The difficulty now is to resolve the inconsistency of enforcers “turning a blind eye” to consumption while leaving supply (and thus marketing) untaxed and unregulated in the hands of drug traffickers. This is little short of a state subsidy to organised crime. Indulgence may save the police and the courts from the cost of enforcement, but it leaves every high street open to massive cross-jeopardy, from cannabis to hard drug use.

Ending this inconsistency requires action from legislators. Yet they remain seized by a lethal mix of taboo, tribalism and fear of the media.

Jenkins suggests that the “heroic legislators” of Uruguay deserve the Nobel peace prize. It’s a fine idea.

Finally, a personal milestone: this is the 300th post at The World is Not Enough, in just under a year of operation. Thanks to all our readers and commenters for your attention.



5 thoughts on “Uruguay bows out of the drug war

  1. In a global recession/depression there are better things to spend public money on than a war on drugs that divert funds to war lords and forces addicted youth into crime. Minimisation of harm may be a good start. Doctor prescriptions allow drug addicts to get clean supplies, cuts funds to criminals, cuts petty crime, reduces costs to public hospitals and takes the coolness out of drug use.

    The high moral ground turns out to be a very expensive place.


  2. the only thing wrong with this is having to go on a state register to receive weed, which i notice you don’t mention in your write up. it makes me wonder what happens when people are found with weed on them who don’t have a license, massive criminal penalties? it’s an encroachment of the state into peoples lives and sends mixed messages


  3. Thanks Gene: my understanding was that the register will only be for buying marijuana, not for use and possession. There are already no criminal penalties for possession, so I can’t imagine that they’d be adding them. Nonetheless I agree that it’s an imposition on people’s freedom; ideally you’d no more need to register to buy marijuana than to buy bread or milk. But I guess we need to walk before we can run.


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