What Uruguay’s Legal Weed Means for the War on Drugs


Uruguay is set to become the first country to legalise marijuana use, cultivation and possession following a century of often authoritarian prohibition laws across the globe. In a landmark vote on President José Mujica’s recent proposal, the Uruguayan Congress overwhelmingly voted in favour of legalisation and it is expected that the bill will pass through the Uruguayan Senate in the next few weeks.

The Uruguay vote comes amid a heightened regional scepticism about the benefits of prohibition and US-led military strategies to enforce repressive anti-narcotics legislation. Even a number of former and current Latin American leaders of the political right have called for the legalisation of marijuana, presumably in recognition of the terrible socio-economic suffering the “war on drugs” has wrought over the last 40 years.

Significantly, the move by Mujica’s government is an indication of growing regional independence. John Kerry may still refer to Latin America as the US’ “backyard”, but it a part of the world increasingly escaping Washington’s hegemonic grasp.

After all, the war on drugs was principally an American invention, launched by President Nixon when he declared that narcotics were the country’s “public enemy number one”. Since then, the war on drugs has provided a pretext for military and political intervention in Latin America (and Asia) and increasingly brutal and repressive social control within the United States. The passing of the new law in Uruguay may be a preliminary step to dismantling a war whose fraudulence and hypocrisy easily compares with its Cold War and “war on terror” counterparts.

Last year, Washington State and Colorado approved laws which allow for the recreational use of marijuana and it is quite possible that other states will follow their example in the near future. These moves have the potential to halt some of the absurdities of the drug war, even if similar legislation is not adopted at the federal level.

These new laws also reflect a growing scepticism among the US public about the benefits of prohibition. Consider that in 1969, a year noted for the sudden increase in pot smoking among Americans, about 12% of the population favoured legalisation. Compare the rather conservative 1960s with attitudes today: a poll conducted this year by the Pew Research Center found that 52% of Americans favour the legalisation of marijuana.

Such a change in attitudes also reflects increased popular awareness about the drug and a cynicism about politicians’ scaremongering and their blatant manipulation of the facts. In the United States, for example, it’s perfectly legal for tobacco to kill about 440,000 people every year. Around 80,000 deaths in the US are caused annually by excessive use of legally-purchased alcohol. And yet there are precisely zero recorded deaths from overdoses of marijuana.

The laws related to marijuana consumption, possession and cultivation may seem overly harsh to a rational observer. However, those who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, such as the private prison industry, the arms industry and the US political elite, are unlikely to disappear.

In the US, marijuana users have found themselves serving longer prison sentences than murderers and rapists. Thanks to Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” law, some cannabis users have faced life imprisonment. Such measures led one scholar of Nazi law, Richard Lawrence Miller, to compare legislation targeting drug users to that used in Germany to marginalise and exclude Jews from mainstream society. Michelle Alexander terms the drug war, “The New Jim Crow”, after the name given to laws that enforced segregation in pre-1960s America. She argues that current practices overwhelmingly target African-Americans, even though studies demonstrate that they use and sell drugs at a level equal to or lower than their Caucasian counterparts.

Indeed, since Nixon declared drugs as “public enemy number one” at a time when drug use was actually in decline, the US prison population has increased from about 0.3m people to 2.3m, the largest incarceration in world history. And America locks up more black people proportionally than South Africa during apartheid, predominantly as a result of anti-drug legislation.

While incarcerating hundreds of thousands of young African-American males for minor drug offences may seem puzzling, it nonetheless makes sense to the booming private prison industry. With the devastation of much of the blue collar workforce as a result of neoliberal economic policies, the economic contribution and value of a whole sector of society has been put to a different purpose. On this, notes American journalist Chris Hedges:

Poor people, especially those of colour, are worth nothing to corporations and private contractors if they are on the street. In jails and prisons, however, they each can generate corporate revenues of $30,000 to $40,000 a year.

One compelling argument in favour of legalisation is that it will seriously undermine the profits of organised crime. Yet narcotics (including marijuana), for example, might account for about half of the profits of some Mexican cartels. Organisations like Los Zetas are impeccable capitalists and are constantly in search of new markets. The Zetas have expanded into people smuggling, sex trafficking, extortion, piracy and even the petroleum industry and coal mining, and these represent huge sources of income.

The issue therefore runs much deeper than mere legalisation and decriminalisation. If there are no efforts to address the root causes of the explosion and growth of organised crime, what is to say criminal syndicates won’t simply expand into other very profitable markets?

Uruguay’s move will hopefully provoke a serious international debate on legalisation. But this debate must also address who will control marijuana production in newly-legalised states. Could growing be organised within local communities and be controlled by consumers, or will legalisation provide a pretext for transnational corporations, perhaps led by big pharmaceutical companies, to muscle in? From their perspective, why should upstart delinquents control the market and accrue massive profits when white collar professionals can run things so much more efficiently?

One potential problem is that the global market might become monopolised, creating what would be a legal but perhaps even more powerful cartel. But for now, Uruguay’s move is clearly a positive step.

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