Uruguay legalizes marijuana: What will this mean for U.S. narcotics policy in the region?

  • photo courtesy of Dey http://www.flickr.com/photos/dey/86298632/sizes/o/
    Dec 20, 2013

    On December 9, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize cannabis—commonly known as marijuana—by establishing a system that will create and implement rules for licensing the production, distribution, and sale of the drug to Uruguayan citizens over the age of 18.

    Uruguay’s move to legalize cannabis is part of the country’s efforts to combat narco-trafficking—and though it’s the first to do so, there has been increasing interest amongst Latin American leaders to seek an alternative approach to the traditional “war on drugs" for some time.

    Last May, the Organization of American States (OAS) published a report suggesting that the Western Hemisphere’s leaders evaluate all possible scenarios—including the potential for widespread legalization efforts—for reducing drug trafficking and the violence that comes with it. And the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Brazil, and Poland, has called on national governments to decriminalize drug possession and sales.

    Despite these developments and their suggestion of a trend toward legalization, the U.S. government continues to endorse a "zero tolerance" approach to reducing the illicit production, movement, and trade of illegal drugs, though U.S. public opinion, according to annual Gallup polls, swings more in favor of legalization with each passing year.

    Considering that Uruguay is the first to challenge the U.S. approach to the war on drugs in the Western Hemisphere, what are the implications of Uruguay’s new strategy on U.S. narcotics policy in the region?

    Q1: What does the ongoing “war on drugs” cost the United States?

    A1: Four decades ago, the United States declared its war on drugs with President Nixon’s call for an anti-drug policy at the state and federal levels. Over the course of the past decade alone, the U.S. government has spent between US$20 billion and US$25 billion each year on counternarcotic efforts.

    In 2013, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) requested US$476 million to support country programs that combat transnational crime and illicit threats in the Western Hemisphere. Although the number has dropped from the US$593 million requested in 2012, the government allocation to the war on drugs in the region remains substantial.

    In Colombia alone, the United States has provided approximately US$8 billion worth of aid since 2000 in the countries’ joint initiative, Plan Colombia. And the United States has provided US$1.5 billion in security aid to Mexico since 2008 through the countries’ joint Merida Initiative.

    The total value of drugs trafficked from Mexico to the United States is valued by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) between US$23 billion and US$28 billion each year. In 2006, the ONDCP reported almost 15,000 metric tons of cannabis were transported from Mexico to the United States, making it the most traded drug across that border. 

    In addition, the counternarcotic efforts by the U.S. government have impacted U.S. incarceration rates—already the highest in the world.

    Currently, one in almost five inmates in state prisons—and almost half in federal prisons—are serving time for drug-related offenses. In 2010 alone, 1.64 million people were arrested for drug violations, with four out of five arrests for possession of marijuana. And, in a pattern that repeats itself throughout the U.S. justice system, minorities are disproportionately represented among those arrested. 

    In short, the economic and social costs of the ongoing drug war to the U.S. government are significant—whether effective or otherwise.

    Q2: What does Uruguay’s new legislation entail?

    A2: The bill passed by the Uruguayan parliament—with a vote of 16 to 13—will come into force in April 2014.

    The law limits the purchase of marijuana to Uruguayan citizens over the age of 18. This bill will allow Uruguayans to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of cannabis in a given month. The state will fix the price at $1 per gram (0.035 ounces), levy taxes on the trade of marijuana, and issue permits for larger-scale production of the drug. Although small quantities can still be grown privately, cannabis will be available over-the-counter at state-licensed pharmacies.

    Uruguayan president José Mujica has launched this so-called “experiment” for a state-controlled cannabis market to counter the trafficking of drugs. According to official statements, the new law hopes to achieve this aim by removing profits from illegal dealers and thereby reduce violence. The low set price aims to undercut traffickers and their profitability.

    By establishing a government-run cannabis market, government figures estimate that the law will remove 90 percent of the traffickers’ market. In addition, this law hopes to counter the efforts by traffickers to use marijuana as a gateway to harder drugs.

    Despite his push for the legislation, Mujica remains cautious—he has stated that if the experiment with drug legalization backfires, the law will be reversed.

    Q3: What will the law mean for U.S. counternarcotic efforts in the Western Hemisphere?

    A3: Producing, selling, and possessing marijuana all remain illegal in the United States under federal law. To date, however, 20 states and Washington, DC have legalized use of physician-prescribed marijuana for medical purposes. And in 2012, the state governments of Washington and Colorado both legalized the recreational use of marijuana—in direct contradiction to federal law.

    Although the government has kept its firm opposition to legalizing marijuana under federal law, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it will not challenge Washington’s and Colorado’s laws, which some have read as tacit acceptance of the state-led legislative trend.

    The trend towards greater acceptance of cannabis is still stronger among the U.S. public—and is clearly reflected in Gallup’s latest poll, published in October 2013, showing that 58 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana while just 39 percent are opposed.

    Meanwhile, world leaders are urging countries to implement alternative methods to the war on drugs. In November, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso released a statement urging their contemporaries to “break [the] century-old taboo” and seek a new approach to the issue.

    This, in combination with regional leaders' explicit appeal to Vice President Biden during his travel to the region in May 2013 and the OAS report released the same month, has resulted in increasing pressure throughout the hemisphere to reconsider the strategy behind the war on drugs.

    These recent trends advocate a move away from the current policy—the approach championed by the United States for more than forty years—in favor of a health-centered approach.

    And as the first to experiment with an innovative approach, Uruguay’s legislation poses a direct challenge to the U.S. government’s established policy in leading the war on drugs.

    If Uruguay’s law proves to be successful, other Latin American countries may follow—generating still-greater pressure on the United States to reconsider its current approach to counter-narcotic policy.

    Conclusion: Over the past year, there has been a major shift in the debate on regional drug policy. Many of the Western Hemisphere's leaders have expressed their growing frustration with the high costs of the drug war—in both monetary and human terms—and, like Uruguay, are increasingly willing to experiment with new approaches.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to champion a "zero tolerance" approach in its efforts to combat drug trafficking through the region, while reforms are implemented at the state level.

    And moving forward, the apparent contradictions in its stance on drugs may well make it increasingly difficult for the United States to advocate a "zero tolerance" policy throughout the region.

    With Americans’ support for cannabis legalization increasing, it is likely that the momentum will continue to spur further legalization efforts across the United States—while Uruguay’s bill may inspire other countries in kind.

    So, given these developments, what is the United States prepared to do to maintain its leadership role in regional counternarcotic efforts when U.S. public opinion—and the attitude throughout the hemisphere—is changing?

    Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Michelle Sinclair and Jillian Rafferty, staff assistants with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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