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Colombia and Uruguay Take the Lead in Drug Policy Paradigm Change

State after state is voting to defy federal marijuana laws, resulting in a chaotic patchwork of legalization schemes that has put the Justice Department in the awkward position of setting a policy to selectively enforce the law.

President Obama’s 2013 Drug Control Strategy, which supports “a public health approach to drug control,” is a positive step toward dealing with the complex web of issues surrounding drug use in a more sophisticated way. However, in framing its approach as a rejection of the “false choice between an enforcement-centric ‘war on drugs’ and drug legalization,” the Office of National Drug Control Policy is clinging to a law enforcement paradigm that is in disarray. State after state is voting to defy federal marijuana laws, resulting in a chaotic patchwork of legalization schemes that has put the Justice Department in the awkward position of setting a policy to selectively enforce the law. In the unique case of marijuana, a substance that has been in common use by constructive contributors to society of every stripe for several generations, now, the institutionalized drug enforcement system is blind to the false choice between prohibition and chaos that, under prohibition, ranges from this kind of legal disorder to the social disharmony caused by inherent racism and unequal justice to corruption, violence, and war.
As the US federal government remains stubbornly entrenched in its conviction that legalization is not an option, several Latin American countries are refusing to tolerate the chaos any longer, challenging the narrative that legalization will lead to a breakdown of social cohesion, and making bold leaps forward in the movement toward a paradigm shift.
In Havana, negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government, under the leadership of President Juan Manuel Santos, turned to the issue of drug trafficking. Insight Crime calls this “a golden opportunity for Colombia to make unprecedented progress in an issue that has ravaged the country for three decades.”
The FARC’s lead negotiator has called for the legalization of consumption of substances such as marijuana and coca for medicinal, therapeutic, and cultural reasons and applying a portion of the profits toward the treatment of problematic drug use, stating that this would put an end to the US government’s “pretext” for “criminal actions against the Colombian people.”
While President Santos has also called for the rethinking of the global drug policy paradigm and has suggested that some level of drug legalization is at least worth considering, the government’s lead negotiator in the peace talks has stated the aim of eradicating coca in Colombia, which would require new investments in crop substitution programs and infrastructure improvements in long-neglected war-torn regions.
It is an open secret that, along with the trafficking routes, the FARC controls a significant proportion of the country’s coca cultivation and processing as well as marijuana production. While the guerillas depend on these sources of income, the leadership’s distancing of themselves from involvement provides them with plausible deniability of any drug trade activities. Movement forward in dealing with narco-trafficking in Colombia will require a commitment by the FARC to confess to their drug-related activities and hand over control of their plantations and trafficking routes.
But these negotiations are tricky because they expose the corrosive nature of the Drug War on all aspects of society. It will not just be up to the guerilla fighters to confess to their activities and cede their power, profits, and properties. As Insight Crime reports, the FARC want some answers in return for their good-faith concessions:
“Among the questions were some that have haunted Colombia for decades and reach into the upper echelons of the country’s political and social elite: Did the infamous police ‘Search Bloc’ that hunted down Pablo Escobar collude with paramilitaries and the Cali Cartel? Did ex-President Alvaro Uribe play a role in the expansion of the cocaine trade during his time as director of Civil Aviation? How many presidents, congressmen, governors and mayors have been elected with drug money?”
And then there is the involvement of the United States. Colombia still practices aerial fumigation, in which the United States is heavily invested. Furthermore, most of the FARC leadership are wanted by the US on drug trafficking charges. Colombia is the key military ally to the US in the region, so Santos is subject to US pressure on these issues. The good news is that Obama expressed “strong support” for the Colombian peace process during a recent meeting with Santos, despite grumblings from hardliners – including Uribe, himself, “from his current perch at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank,” as IPS puts it.
While in Washington, Santos responded to the criticism that he is “giving in to the FARC” by stating that “this is nonsense, absolute nonsense. I decided to open a peace process with them because every war must end with some kind of negotiation.” Santos’ leadership in this process includes adding two women to the Colombian government’s negotiating team, bringing to the table their strong backgrounds in women’s advocacy, ethnic issues, and human rights; and this leadership is mirrored in his willingness to negotiate alternative paths toward drug policy solutions.
On December 10, 2013 – Human Rights Day – the Uruguayan Senate, by a vote of 16 for and 13 against, approved a historic marijuana regulation bill, making Uruguay the first nation in the world to officially legalize marijuana on a national level.
The legislation was put forth by Uruguayan President José Mujica and promoted by the majority Frente Amplio party and Regulación Responsable [Spanish], a coalition of organizations and prominent Uruguayan personalities. The legislation focuses on the themes of public health, harm reduction, and security, asserting the human rights of marijuana users rather than stigmatizing or marginalizing them. For decades, the use of marijuana has been legal in Uruguay, but access to it has not. This contradiction in the law is precisely what has driven the illegal sale of marijuana in Uruguay, and this narco-trafficking causes more problems than the drug, itself, does because, in the words of Senator Roberto Conde[Spanish], it “rots all of our society.”
The Uruguayan marijuana regulation bill [Spanish] begins:
“Decláranse de interés público las acciones tendientes a proteger, promover y mejorar la salud pública de la población mediante una política orientada a minimizar los riesgos y a reducir los daños del uso del cannabis, que promueva la debida información, educación y
prevención, sobre las consecuencias y efectos perjudiciales vinculados a dicho consumo así como el tratamiento, rehabilitación y reinserción social de los usuarios problemáticos de drogas.”
“Hereby declared in the public interest are actions to protect, promote, and improve the public health of the population by means of a policy oriented to minimize the risks and reduce the harm of the use of cannabis, which promotes the appropriate information, education, and prevention relating to the harmful consequences and effects linked to said consumption as well as the treatment, rehabilitation, and social reintegration of problematic drug users.
The aim is to destroy the illegal marijuana market by regulating the importation, production, acquisition, storage, sales, marketing, and distribution of marijuana and its derivatives. The regulated marijuana will replace the prevalent low-quality compressed pot that is produced in Paraguay, smuggled into Uruguay, and sold, all by organized criminal enterprises, with a dependable, superior product that people will be willing to purchase or cultivate themselves with the proper permits.
The bill also follows the examples of alcohol and tobacco in regulating certain aspects of the use of the drug, such as driving under the influence and smoking in public spaces, in addition to selling only to Uruguayan citizens of age.
The legalization of marijuana will have the positive effects of providing opportunities for the study of marijuana and its derivatives for medicinal use and allowing the growth of hemp for textiles and paper. The estimated US$30 million in taxes will be put to use for education and health.
The opposition argument in the debate focused on the theme of uncertainty, questioning the government’s capacity to regulate all these aspects of the marijuana trade, expressing doubt that the regulation scheme can put an end to narco-trafficking, and calling it a social experiment that puts the future of Uruguay’s children at risk. The United States as well as Uruguay’s behemoth neighbor Brazil chimed in with their opposition to this change in the Drug War paradigm, while the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) of the United Nations warned about the consequences of flaunting international agreements. But the Frente Amplio senators stood strong and proud before the pressure, declaring that the right of the Uruguayan people to explore a different course in confronting the issues of drug use outweighs laws and conventions that are currently failing to serving them.
Following the decriminalization of abortion and the approval of gay marriage in Uruguay, President Mujica has cemented his legacy as a world leader in the promotion of human rights, and any successes in the social experiment in Uruguay will have resounding effects on societies around the world that are ready to reject the chaos of prohibition and take new routes for dealing with the problems of drug use in their communities.
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