Uruguay is showing a novel approach to Latin America's growing fatigue with the war on drugs with a new proposal: normalize marijuana use and hand over its distribution and marketing to the government.
European Pressphoto Agency
President José Mujica says Uruguay needs a new approach to marijuana.
Under a plan Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro announced late Wednesday, which the leftist government will soon present to lawmakers, the state will oversee sales, which would be allowed only to adults 18 and older.
Mr. Fernández Huidobro said the government would try to attain "regulated and controlled legalization," saying the prohibition of drugs and the violence that entails is causing "more problems than the drugs themselves."
The government said it would use the revenue from its role as marijuana vendor to fund drug-rehabilitation programs.
The Drug Policy Alliance, an American nonprofit group that backs a less punitive approach to the drug war said the plan, if enacted, would make Uruguay the first country in the world where the state took charge of selling marijuana to its citizens.
"We are doing this for the young people, because the traditional approach hasn't worked," Uruguayan President José Mujica told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo while in Rio de Janeiro for the Rio+20 environmental conference.
"We have to find another way, and some may find this way too bold. Uruguay is a small country, where these sort of things are easier to do," he said.
Use of Marijuana isn't illegal in Uruguay, though government officials acknowledged that putting themselves at the center of the trade was a bold gambit.
The move comes after several years when a number of Latin countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, have liberalized policies on the use of small quantities of narcotics.
Governments in the region have grown weary of the violence associated with the drug war. In Mexico, bloody battles against drug traffickers claimed more than 12,000 lives last year alone.
"The U.S., and not just President Obama, but its Congress, its society, needs to look at alternatives that reduce the cash flow to these criminal groups," Mexican President Felipe Calderón said in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, adding that alternatives could include "market solutions" such as legalization.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said: "The striking thing about this is that it comes from a country like Uruguay, which is not exactly associated with the drug problem. I think this is a sign that the region is beginning to assume leadership on this issue" from Washington.
The proposal doesn't please everyone. "We were waiting for measures to combat insecurity, and now the government proposes legalizing drugs," said Uruguayan opposition leader Pedro Bordaberry. "It makes no sense."
Mr. Fernández Huidobro said that criminalizing drug use, a policy he said was pushed on Latin America by Washington since the Nixon administration, hasn't only failed to halt addiction, but has also fomented the creation of violent trafficking networks.
President Mujica added, "There are similar proposals in Europe but someone has to get going in South America. Someone has to be the first because we are losing the war against drugs and crime in the continent."
Mr. Fernández Huidobro said the government estimates that marijuana is a $750 million a year business in Uruguay, with about 1,200 sellers and distributors. The government estimates there are 150,000 consumers in the country out of a population of 3.3 million.
Some details of the proposal remain sketchy. Initially, the government had suggested it would maintain a registry of users.
But in a radio interview on Thursday, Mr. Fernández Huidobro seemed to backtrack, saying the registry "sounds a little authoritarian and perhaps we should avoid it."
Mr. Fernández Huidobro said Uruguayan farmers would plant the marijuana, but said more details would come soon.
"The laws of the market will rule here: Whoever sells the best and the cheapest will end with drug trafficking," Mr. Fernández Huidobro said, according to Associated Press. "We'll have to regulate farm production so there's no contraband and regulate distribution.…We must make sure we don't affect neighboring countries or be accused of being an international drug production center."