If Cheech and Chong would be around today, rather than bringing pot into the US by covering the body of a van with it (to elude the ever-implacable Sgt. Stadanko), they would save some money and fly in a hurry to Uruguay, where pot consumption is not frowned upon and – here’s the kicker – is about to become the first country in the world to fully legalize pot. There are some strings attached, though. First, the bill only allows for production under a government license. Second, the drug can only be sold in drugstores (never had that name become so à propos) and to registered users. Finally, the bill bans sales to minors, the advertisement of pot products, and smoking in public locations. Pot sales will also be taxed, with proceeds funding campaigns against the use of harder drugs.
Besides the economic, social, and political implications of crime in Latin America, a powerful reason why is it so problematic is also one of its ugliest manifestations: drug violence. In Brazil, it is the raison d’etre for the existence of the Battalion of Special Police Operations (BOPE in Portuguese), the elite unit of Rio de Janeiro’s state police and part and parcel of the militarization of citizen security in the region. In Colombia, it has been reported that both sides in its guerrilla conflict have been in cahoots with drug cartels like those of Pablo Escobar, the main character in Mark Bowden’s docu-novel. And in Mexico, it is said that the drug war fought there since 2006 has cost the lives of around 60,000 people — and counting. It is for those reasons that during the last year the issue of how to deal with drug violence has received so much attention in Latin America. Not every government will go as far as legalizing drugs, but there is consensus around the idea that the “war on drugs” is creating more problems than not and something more innovative and effective has to be implemented. A recent statement by Uruguayan President José Mujica to the BBC on the legalization bill says it all: “I’m scared by the drug trafficking, not by the drug.”
There is only one country that does not seem to listen to those calls for something new, and it happens to be the top drug consumer in the world: the United States. Lost in the news about the Secret Service agents who patronized prostitution was something else that happened during the last Summit of the Americas, held in Colombia: The US and its Latin American neighbors have agreed to disagree on how to handle the problem of drug trafficking and violence, with the former insisting on the “war on drugs” strategy. Part of it is the continued disbursement of millions of dollars to fund Mexico’s drug war (first under George W. Bush and now under Barack Obama) and the “carrot and stick” approach of granting trade privileges in exchange for cooperation on drug enforcement activities. In all, the disagreements between the parties boil down to what to focus on: reduce the demand for drugs (what Latin America wants from the US) or target the supply and disrupt its management (what the US wants from Latin America).
It is against this larger context that Uruguay will cross the line in the sand and legalize pot. Latin America continues to tell the US that the “war on drugs” has become too onerous in blood and treasure and that, unlike the US, it does not have that much money to burn and that many lives to lose anymore. Uruguay will say it louder than anybody else.
UPDATE (Oct. 27, 2013): The bill in question passed the Uruguayan House and will be considered by the Senate, where the party in government has a majority. Passage is all but assured.
UPDATE (Dec. 11, 2013): Yesterday, the Uruguayan Senate passed the bill, 16-13. The government now has 119 days to implement the corresponding policy. Foreigners are not allowed to buy Uruguayan pot, so don’t pack your bags.