What Legalizing Pot In Uruguay Means For the World

This small Latin American country is now on the forefront of global drug policy reform

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Late Wednesday night, following months of intensive debate and negotiation, the Uruguayan House of Representatives passed a bill to legalize marijuana.  If approved by the Senate, President José Mujica will certainly sign it, at which point Uruguay will become the first country in the world to replace its marijuana prohibition law with a legal regulatory system.

Uruguay’s bold move does much more than just follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington state, which last November became the first political jurisdictions in the world to approve the legalization of marijuana.

(MORE: How Much Will A Legal Marijuana Habit Cost You?)

It provides, significantly, a model for how to engage in debate over marijuana policy in a mature and responsible way.  When President Mujica first issued his proposal last June, he made clear that he welcomed vigorous debate over both its merits and the particulars.  International experts were invited from abroad for intensive discussions with people from all walks of civil society and government.  A range of specific proposals were considered, all with an eye toward transforming an illegal industry into a legal one to better protect public safety and health.  Political rhetoric and grandstanding permeated the debate, as would be expected in any vibrant democratic process, but substantive issues dominated.

The bill passed on Wednesday effectively integrates elements of Colorado’s and Washington’s laws with innovations from Europe and provisions unique to Uruguay.  Adults are permitted to cultivate up to six plants; cooperatives can provide marijuana for a limited number of members; and pharmacies can sell it.  Sales to minors, driving under the influence and all forms of advertising are prohibited.  This new model will be of great interest to advocates and legislators in other countries, and of course in the growing number of U.S. states in which a majority of citizens now favor legalizing marijuana.

What I as an American find most striking about Uruguay’s historic move is the demonstration of political leadership by President Mujica.  In the United States, marijuana policy reform is an issue on which the people lead and the politicians follow.  Colorado and Washington changed their laws through the ballot initiative process, with roughly 55% of voters supporting the reform, while most elected officials sat on the sidelines.  Even today, with a majority of Americans in favor of legalizing marijuana, not one U.S. governor or U.S. senator is prepared to publicly support the legalization of marijuana (apart from the governors of Washington and Colorado who now are obliged to implement the new laws in their states).  By contrast, when President Mujica made his proposal, he reportedly did it without consulting any polls or political consultants; he simply listened to respected experts about what the optimal marijuana policy would be – and then said, let’s do it.

President Mujica is not the only Latin American leader to demonstrate courage in calling for alternatives to the drug war.  Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala have boldly demanded that legalization, decriminalization and other alternatives to ineffective, costly and destructive prohibitionist drug policies be considered.  More recently, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza has catapulted regional discussion of drug policy to an intellectual level unprecedented among multilateral organizations.  But President Mujica’s proposal is unique in changing not just public debate but also actual laws and policies.

All this serves as a wake-up call for Europe, which was at the forefront of global drug policy reform in the latter part of the 20th century but has now been leapfrogged by developments in the Americas. Serious proposals for legal regulation of marijuana are proliferating in countries like Switzerland, Spain, the Czech Republic, Denmark and the Netherlands.  And in Morocco, long one of the world’s leading producers of marijuana, legalization proposals are now being taken seriously by the national government.

So who’s next?  In the U.S., numerous states are likely to legalize marijuana in coming years, with Oregon perhaps first in line.  In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems like a throwback to the drug war fanatics who dominated U.S. drug policy in the 1980s and 1990s, but both opposition parties seem ready to legalize marijuana once they regain power. And I’d keep my eye on the Dutch, who thirty-plus years ago pioneered the legal regulation of retail sales of marijuana through the “coffeeshop” system, and who may now be inspired by Colorado, Washington and Uruguay to fully legalize and regulate the industry.