Pubdate: Fri, 13 Dec 2013
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Simon Jenkins


The Heroic Legislators of Uruguay Deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for 
Legalising Cannabis. They Put the UN and the US to Shame

I used to think the United Nations was a harmless talking shop, with 
tax-free jobs for otherwise unemployed bureaucrats. I now realise it 
is a force for evil. Its response to a truly significant attempt to 
combat a global menace - Uruguay's new drug regime - has been to 
declare that it "violates international law". To see the tide turn on 
drugs is like trying to detect a glacier move. But moving it is. 
Wednesday's statute was introduced by the Uruguayan president, Jose 
Mujica, "to free future generations from this plague". The plague was 
not drugs as such but the "war" on them, which leaves the world's 
youth at the mercy of criminal traffickers and random imprisonment. 
Mujica declares himself a reluctant legaliser but one determined "to 
take users away from clandestine business.

We don't defend marijuana or any other addiction, but worse than any 
drug is trafficking."

Uruguay will legalise not only cannabis consumption but, crucially, 
its production and sale. Users must be over 18 and registered 
Uruguayans. While small quantities can be grown privately, firms will 
produce cannabis under state licence and prices will be set to 
undercut traffickers. The country does not have a problem on the 
scale of Colombia or Mexico - just 10% of adults admit to using 
cannabis - and stresses that the measure is experimental.

This measured approach is still way in advance even of American 
states such as Colorado and Washington, which have legalised 
recreational as well as medical cannabis consumption, but not 
production. While the Uruguayan law does not cover other drugs, by 
depriving traffickers of an estimated 90% of their market, the hope 
is both to undermine the bulk of the criminal market and to diminish 
the gateway effect of traffickers pushing harder drugs.

Mujica's courage should not be underrated. His is a gently 
old-fashioned country, and two-thirds of those polled oppose the 
move, though this is up from 3% a decade ago. In addition some 
pro-legalisation lobbies object to his de facto nationalisation. An 
open question is whether a state cartel will be as effective as a 
regulated free market.

But the drugs chief, Julio Calzada, is blunt: "For 50 years, we have 
tried to tackle the drug problem with only one tool - penalisation - 
and that has failed.

As a result, we now have more consumers, bigger criminal 
organisations, money laundering, arms trafficking and collateral damage."

The response of the UN's International Narcotics Control Board has 
been to incant futile bromides.

The move, says its chief Raymond Yans, would "endanger young people 
and contribute to the earlier onset of addiction". It would also be 
in breach of a "universally agreed and internationally endorsed 
treaty". Yet the UN admits that half a century of attempted 
suppression has led to 162m cannabis users worldwide, or 4% of the 
total adult population.

The 78-year-old Mujica notes the irony that many of his South 
American contemporaries agree with him, but only after leaving 
office. They include Brazil's Fernando Cardoso, Mexico's Ernesto 
Zedillo and Colombia's Cesar Gaviria, all of whom have now called for 
the decriminalisation of the drug market so that they can begin to 
regulate a trade whose feuding operators are killing thousands of 
people each year. The value of the drugs trade is second only to the 
trade in arms. Yet the US resists decriminalisation so it can 
continue to fight cocaine and opium production in Latin America and 
Afghanistan, to avoid confronting the real enemy: a domestic 
consumption that is out of control.

For all this, the futility of suppression is leading to laws 
crumbling across the west. Twenty US states have legalised medical 
cannabis. California this year narrowly rejected taxing consumption 
(turning down an estimated $1.3bn in annual revenue) and may yet 
relent. Drug use is accepted across most of Latin America and, de 
facto, Europe. Even in Britain, where possession can be punished by 
five years in prison, just 0.2% of cases prosecuted result in such a 
sentence. The most intensive drug users are said to be in the state's 
own jails. The law has effectively collapsed.

The difficulty now is to resolve the inconsistency of enforcers 
"turning a blind eye" to consumption while leaving supply (and thus 
marketing) untaxed and unregulated in the hands of drug traffickers. 
This is little short of a state subsidy to organised crime. 
Indulgence may save the police and the courts from the cost of 
enforcement, but it leaves every high street open to massive 
cross-jeopardy, from cannabis to hard drug use.

Ending this inconsistency requires action from legislators. Yet they 
remain seized by a lethal mix of taboo, tribalism and fear of the 
media. British policy on all intoxicants and narcotics (from booze to 
benzodiazepines) is chaotic and dangerous. The government yesterday 
admitted its inability to control "legal highs", new ones being 
invented every week. It is running round back-street laboratories 
waving bans and arrest warrants like the Keystone Cops.

The catastrophe of death and anarchy that failed drug suppression has 
brought to Mexico and to other narco-states makes the west's 
obsessive war on terror seem like a footling sideshow. The road out 
of this darkness is now being charted not in the old world but in the 
new, whose heroic legislators deserve to be awarded a Nobel peace 
prize. It is they who have taken on the challenge of fighting the one 
world war that really matters - the war on the war on drugs. It is 
significant that the bravest countries are also the smallest. Thank 
heavens for small states.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom