From Montevideo to Washington: The Case for Drug Legislation in the Americas

Flag of Uruguay, Montevideo.  Image: Benoît Prieur. Since June 2012, Uruguay—though one of the smallest nations in the Western Hemisphere—has made tremendous waves in the fight to legalize marijuana. If Uruguay’s congress approves a bill enacted this month by its House of Representatives, and if President José Mujica signs it into law, Uruguay would become the world’s first country to legalize marijuana. Under the bill, the state would assume control and regulation of the importation, exportation, plantation, cultivation, storage, commercialization, and distribution of cannabis. Interested purchasers would have to be over eighteen years old and be registered in a database; once in the system, they could acquire up to 1.4 ounces per month from specialized pharmacies. Alternatively, eligible individuals could grow up to six plants at home.

Such a decision to legalize marijuana would turn the tide of drug criminalization in the Americas. It could crystallize a solution that stems the collateral damage of illicit marijuana trade and shed light on how the war on drugs should be approached.

The Uruguayan legislation has caught interest in Mexico, where security measures along the Mexico-U.S. border haven’t proved effective against drug smuggling, a phenomenon that has fueled the worst bloodbath in recent history, with more than 70,000 deaths since the government’s crackdown on drug cartels began in 2006. In June 2013, the Party of the Democratic Revolution announced new efforts to legalize marijuana in Mexico City, and several high-profile figures in Mexico, include Former President Vicente Fox, voiced their support. Former President Vicente Fox even mentioned he would grow marijuana if it were legal.

These new legislative proposals are the outcome of a continuing outcry for drug legalization in Latin America. In August 2012, presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala presented a joint petition to the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, calling for a “rigorous review of international drug policy” and an analysis of “all available options, including regulatory or market measures.” Also, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, led by three former Latin American presidents, called on lawmakers to spare taxpayers the costs of massive incarceration measures by replacing those measures with treatment services. Last year, high-profile figures including former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton signed a general letter urging governments to find new ways to improve drug policies and minimize drug-related charges against tens of millions of “otherwise law-abiding citizens.”

The wave of drug legalization has reached some U.S. states. With 50 percent of all Americans favoring marijuana legalization, Colorado and Washington recently legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, and several U.S. states will likely follow in their footsteps. Recently, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said he would allow the use of medical marijuana for ailing children, and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta praised the medical benefits marijuana possesses.

Even so, significant obstacles block the path to drug legalization at the federal level. “First of all, you need marijuana. And marijuana is illegal,” says Gupta. “The second thing you need is approval, and the scientists I interviewed kept reminding me how tedious that can be.” He notes that approval must be obtained from one key organization: the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which “has a core mission of studying drug abuse, as opposed to benefit.”

Meanwhile, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—five times more per capita than Britain or Spain—and has spent more than $1 trillion in tax money on the war on drugs. Punitive drug laws such as the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York have had dire and enduring consequences on the population, causing racial disparities and collateral damages for individuals and their families. A conviction for drug law violations may result in the loss of employment, food stamp eligibility, and the right to vote, among other civil rights deprivations.

Though President Barack Obama is reluctant to change U.S. drug policy, now is the time for him to replace the United States’ war on drugs with a legislative initiative mirroring Uruguay’s. The United States should invest more in drug rehabilitation programs and forgo incarcerating those possessing small doses of marijuana and other recreational drugs, easing the burden on its taxpayers.

In Latin American, countries have not constructed more prison facilities as the prison population has grown, resulting in an overpopulation of jails, unrest, and deadly riots. Corruption is rampant among prison authorities, and many gangs still operate behind bars. In addition to relaxing current drug policies, Latin American governments—particularly in Central America and Mexico—need to launch effective prevention and rehabilitation programs in and outside of prison cells while bolstering anti-corruption initiatives among law enforcement agents. Drug-related military and prison expenditures could instead be invested in social programs throughout Latin America including job creation and education.

In essence, the current drug policies should be treated as human rights violations. Human Rights Watch asserts that draconian criminal penalties over personal drug use undermine human rights: “The ‘drug war’ has taken a huge toll in the Americas, from the carnage of brutal drug-trafficking organizations to the egregious abuses by security forces fighting them. Governments should find new policies to address the harm drug use causes while curbing the violence and abuse that have plagued the current approach.”

With the exception of Uruguay, It is uncertain whether strict drug policies across the Americas will change at the legislative level in the near future; the mere idea of drug legalization is still considered a taboo. However, it behooves all governments and organizations throughout the Americas to consider the proposed tactics that could help improve the futile results of the war on drugs, as well as to heed the voices that clamor for swift change in drug policies.