Pubdate: Thu, 28 Jun 2012
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2012 The Economist Newspaper Limited

Uruguayan Drug Legalisation


A Bold, If Fuzzy, Proposal

RECENTLY Latin American leaders have begun to rebel against rigid 
drug prohibition and the decades-long "war" on drugs. So when 
Uruguay's government this month released a document suggesting it 
would legalise and take control of the sale of cannabis in the 
country, this seemingly bold step attracted much media attention. Not 
so fast: the proposal amounts to one line in a 20-page report on the 
government's strategy for tackling rising crime. And the details have 
not been hammered out even among members of President Jose Mujica's 
cabinet, let alone in the country's Congress. Nevertheless, something 
is stirring in Uruguay.

The National Drugs Board, which advises the president, favours a plan 
under which production of cannabis would be a state monopoly. The 
defence minister said he thought private companies should do the job, 
under government supervision. Mr Mujica announced that the state 
would distribute the drug in doses of no more than 30 grams a month, 
and track customers in a government register. Users would have to 
present the butts of their smoked cigarettes before receiving new 
stocks. No, such a database would be too authoritarian, said the 
defence minister.

Uruguay is one of very few countries where possession of drugs for 
personal use has never been a crime. About 5.6% of Uruguayans aged 
between 15 and 64 smoke cannabis, according to United Nations' annual 
World Drug Report, released this week. That is slightly higher than 
the world average, but lower than in the United States and much of 
western Europe. These consumers fuel a business estimated to be worth 
between $35m and $75m. By legalising supply, the government hopes to 
wrest these revenues from traffickers and use them to improve 
treatment and health facilities. They also aim to price cannabis 
cheaply enough to tempt users away from harder drugs such as cocaine and crack.

Mr Mujica's left-of-centre government has a majority in both houses 
of Congress. But it is a narrow one. Even when officials have 
finalised a bill, approval is not certain. In 2010 Luis Lacalle Pou, 
an opposition congressman, proposed a bill to legalise cannabis 
cultivation for personal use. It was defeated. He says the issue is 
still not being treated seriously. Claudio Paolillo, the editor of 
Busqueda, a weekly newspaper, dismisses the government's proposal as 
a "smoke screen" to divert attention from a crime wave.

Nevertheless, the thinking by Uruguay's government is the most daring 
in a growing debate about drug policy in Latin America. Organised 
criminal bands that traffic drugs-and the attempts to repress 
them-have wreaked havoc in the region, with murder rates soaring in 
Mexico and Central America. But world demand for illegal drugs has 
remained stable, according to the World Drug Report. The UN reckons 
that total production of cocaine in the Andes has declined somewhat 
since 2005, with a fall in Colombia partly offset by rises in Peru 
and Bolivia. But it admits there is uncertainty about the production 
estimates. Latin America has long since ceased to be merely a drug 
producer, with consumption rising fast in recent years. Argentina and 
Brazil have both suffered crack epidemics.

The leaders of Guatemala and Costa Rica recently called for a debate 
about legalising cocaine. Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos said he would 
favour this, if other countries led the way. Brazil is poised to vote 
on whether to decriminalise personal use of all drugs in June. 
Argentina has begun to debate a bill that would do something similar.

If Uruguay does approve the controlled legal sale of cannabis, that 
will put it in breach of the UN's drug-control conventions, which 
prohibit drug sales for non-medical use. Many Latin American leaders 
think that this blanket ban has demonstrably failed, and want to be 
free to experiment with other approaches. The next step is for the 
region to mount a diplomatic offensive to reform the conventions.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom