President Mujica Hopes to Manage Marijuana

Jose Mujica, Uruguay’s notoriously rebellious president, has recently proposed what some may call a radical bill, legalizing and monitoring marijuana sales, with the government becoming the sole legal seller. For President Mujica, this bill, far from being outrageous or amoral, is simply an “anti-crime” measure: Monitoring marijuana production and sale would greatly reduce the criminality surrounding the illegal production and selling of marijuana. In Uruguay, where marijuana use in itself is legal, the traditional approach has not worked, so Mujica believes Uruguay might as well try something new.

“Someone has to be the first” he stated, showing his willingness to make Uruguay’s revolutionary measure the global norm. The measure has yet to pass through Uruguay’s Congress, controlled by Mujica’s party, but it is on a solid path. Mujica seeks to channel in the $750 million Uruguayans spend a year on marijuana into public pockets. This would empower the government in its fight against drug trafficking and violence, which has become a bigger issue than the drugs themselves. The bill would allow the government to sell marijuana cigarettes only to citizens 18-and-older, with restricted amounts available per month. The state would therefore strictly monitor the quality, production, and price of marijuana. Effectively, the marijuana trade will become a state-run enterprise in Uruguay, making it more innovative than even Portugal (which abolished criminal penalties for drug uses in 2001) and the Netherlands (which has a policy of non-enforcement for pot coffee-shops).

Uruguay, a small and stable nation (just like Portugal and the Netherlands) is more capable than others to herald this change in drug policy. In doing so it is relaying the growing skepticism about drug laws around the globe. This concern is, however, most salient in South America, the continent most plagued by drug trafficking. In the past weeks, officials from all around the continent have voiced their support for a path to legalization, which they see as a possible solution in a region where the war on drugs has had tremendous repercussions.

One nation, however, is not pleased by the turn Uruguay is taking. President Obama had already stated that “legalization is not the answer”, though he admitted that American drug laws are sometimes “doing more harm than good in certain places.” Indeed, American drug laws are problematic in that they provide huge profits for criminals, and have therefore encouraged rampant criminality and corruption. Polls have shown that 50 percent of Americans favor legalizing marijuana use, though virtually no policy-makers do. Moreover, the war on drugs, which has been raging for a while now, with more than 50,000 killed in drug-related violence since 2006 in Mexico. And 12,000 of those deaths were in 2011 alone.  This doesn’t mean that a prohibitionist attitude is necessarily wrong but the extent of the havoc created in South America by the intransigence of the US government might mean that some change is needed.

If the bill passes, therefore, the policy’s success is undoubtedly going to be scrutinized by all global leaders, whether they publicly admire or criticize it. However, even if the policy proves itself successful, it is certain that the success and global impact of the policy would be mitigated by the fact Uruguay is a stable state of only 3 million people. That most South American leaders back the policy nevertheless shows that Uruguay might be setting itself to become an experiment for the rest of the region to draw conclusion from. Indeed, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has already expressed his support for legalization, which “could be a solution only if everyone does it at the same time”.  Legalization may or may not be the answer, but one has to admire President’s Mujica’s courage. Perhaps this will break the taboo on alternatives to prohibition and open up an intelligent debate.