Redefining Global Drug Policy: Uruguay’s Move to Legalize Marijuana

General consensus that the War on Drugs has failed is growing. As many communities establish a consensus that the War on Drugs is unsuccessful, alternative approaches to addiction and drug-related violence are being adopted. In the past 40 years, the United States has spent roughly $1 trillion on the War on Drugs, with limited positive results to show for it. Thus, a new approach must be taken to combat addiction issues and drug trafficking, as well as the human rights abuses related to criminalization tactics. Uruguay presents a prominent new example; on December 12, Uruguay became the first country to legalize the production, distribution and sale of marijuana, initiating a new approach to the War on Drugs.

One Uruguayan legislator hailed the benefits of regulation, stating, “When you regulate an activity, you can potentially eliminate the black markets, and the activity generates taxes that in return can be invested in education, information and public health programmes.” Since the War on Drugs has unfortunately become a War on Drug Users, this new measure will revise the tactics used, minimizing trafficking and illegal markets while managing to not place a damaging stigma on drug users. By targeting drug trafficking rather than drug addiction, as President Mujica has, problems stemming from drug use can be addressed in a more effective and ethical manner.

Several former leaders, such as Brazil’s Fernando Cardoso, Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo and Colombia’s César Gaviria, have come out in favor of decriminalization of drugs in order to more effectively regulate a market that has become exceedingly violent. The fact that these leaders voiced their opinion after leaving office highlights the politically sensitive nature of the topic. Even the UK has admitted to being unable to control legal highs, since new methods are frequently developed. Thus, focusing on illegal trafficking and promoting public health measures seems like a more viable solution to combating both the demand and supply of drugs.

Uruguay has received harsh criticism from the United Nations. The UN’s International Narcotics Control Board has claimed that by legalizing marijuana, Uruguay is in breach of its commitment to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Moreover, the INCB claims the move will “endanger young people and contribute to the earlier onset of addiction.” Despite 50 years of criminalization and suppression of drug use by governments, roughly 4% of the total adult population worldwide use cannabis. Instead of acknowledging that current legislation and enforcement are incapable of addressing the root causes of drug abuse and trafficking, the UN refuses to revise legislation to be more compatible with the progressive policies some countries are implementing, such as Uruguay, the Netherlands, and some states in the US.

By continuing to fight the War on Drugs through targeting opium and cocaine production abroad, the United States, and others with similar policies, is avoiding a significant portion of the problem: domestic drug use spiraling out of control. The “experimental” legislation adopted by Uruguay represents a new initiative that targets drug use in a more empathetic and human rights friendly manner. With the progressive measures regarding legalization of marijuana taken in Uruguay, Washington and Colorado, it will be advantageous to observe the outcomes and challenges in each region.

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