Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Uruguay's recent decision to legalize marijuana stands as a dramatic break with the current advocates of continued drug prohibition policies. However, the small nation's action may very well mark a change in how the world approaches the drug war, especially as it relates to marijuana.
The first point that must be made is that this marks the first time in modern history that a nation has legalized all aspects of the use of marijuana, from cultivating the plant to its ultimate use by the consumer. While the use of marijuana in Uruguay was previously legal, until now its cultivation and sale was not.
The new law will legalize the cultivation of marijuana by individuals and smoking clubs, in addition to allowing registered adults to purchase up to 40 grams a month from government pharmacies.
Most importantly, marijuana sold on the open market will be lower in price than that currently charged by illegal dealers. When combined with the better-regulated growing conditions of state-grown marijuana and the ability to grow marijuana for personal consumption, this may very well make illegal cultivation for Uruguay's domestic market untenable.
Uruguay's move toward legalization is part of what is increasingly being seen as the only viable alternative to the failed war on drugs, especially as regard marijuana. By legalizing and regulating the market, Uruguay will not only enjoy increased state revenue from the sale of marijuana, but also strike at the economic root of the illegal sale of marijuana. This is especially important when considering how much violence the illegal drug market helps fuel.
Medically, the decision to legalize and regulate, rather than to prohibit the use and cultivation of marijuana, turns on the argument that marijuana usage is arguably less harmful than the habitual use of legal products like tobacco and alcohol.
In comparison, the prohibition of marijuana commonly results in the criminalization of a large number of otherwise law-abiding citizens. This is especially the case in the US, where according to the FBI, marijuana offenses accounted for over 48 percent of drug-related arrests in 2012. By reducing the number of individuals facing arrest and incarceration, marijuana legalization could help reduce the very real human and financial costs associated with the criminalization of the production and sale of the drug.
While there have been complaints from some sectors, most notably the International Narcotics Control Board, the majority of the world appears to be taking a wait and see approach. Notably, the US has been largely silent about Uruguay's actions.
By observing the impact Uruguay's regulatory policies have on usage patterns and drug-related crime, other nations can obtain accurate information on the benefits and costs of legalization, enabling them to craft a realistic and beneficial policy regarding marijuana.
This will be especially important for the US, where debates on marijuana legalization are often hampered by a lack of hard evidence, forcing both sides to rely on anecdotal claims to support their claims.
Additionally, legalization does not mean that the state must promote the use of marijuana. Uruguay's government is clear that legalization is based on pragmatic concerns and does not constitute the promotion of the use of marijuana.
In fact, the legalization of marijuana may actually allow governments to more effectively regulate the use of marijuana, especially among minors. An example of this would be the regulated sale of alcohol, which is restricted by age in most nations.
However, the greatest impact of Uruguay's decision is the fact that it admits that the traditional war on drugs, at least as it applies to marijuana, has been an unmitigated failure. By acknowledging this fact and moving forward, Uruguay presents a model that other nations can follow, one that would allow them to focus on more damaging types of drugs.
Additionally, by helping eliminate the illicit market for marijuana, legalization may reduce the financial strength of the groups that currently benefit from the marijuana trade.
Admitting that a course of action, especially one held for so many years, has failed requires a great deal of courage. Hopefully, Uruguay's forward-looking actions will convince other nations to follow its lead in this area.
The author is a political writer based in Southern California. firstname.lastname@example.org