The tide is turning on opposition to the criminalization of marijuana. More and more prominent persons and organizations are supporting legalization as an alternative to the Drug War, including former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Canadian Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau, and the ACLU. As the folks at Just Say Now.org point out, even The Partnership at Drugfree.org is talking in terms of how legalization of marijuana should work rather than if it should be legalized.
Uruguay moves toward legalization
On July 31, 2013, Uruguay’s lower house approved a bill, by a vote of 50-46, to regulate the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana. Geoffrey Ramsey covered the story brilliantly on his blog, The Pan-American Post:
Throughout the lead up to the 11:00 pm vote, both opposition and FA [Frente Amplio] lawmakers took the floor to give their opinions on the bill. From the discourse of the Frente legislators, it was clear that they see themselves as the vanguard of drug policy in the hemisphere. Frente Amplio Congressman Nicolas Perreira, for instance, called the bill “historic,” adding that “Latin America is moving towards a more profound debate, that dares to look for alternatives.” FA Congressman Jorge Orrico also stressed that the bill could serve as an alternative for other countries in the region, because of the “failure” of the current model. “Ten years ago Mexico was convinced they needed to launch a war on drugs, and all they achieved was corruption of state institutions,” said Oricco.
The debate in the Uruguayan legislature was remarkable as, for the first time in history, the arguments for and against the legalization of marijuana carried the weight of national policy. Ramsey was live tweeting from the antechamber, and anyone following along was treated to the major points of the debate twittering onto the screen, one after the other.
In favor of the bill, legislators focused on the fact that with or without it, marijuana use and the social problems created by its prohibition would continue. Currently, there is a contradiction in the law, as consumption of marijuana is legal in Uruguay, but access is not. The overall theme was that it is time to stop ignoring the social problems caused by prohibition and make a shift toward policy that focuses on harm reduction and public health.
“The state can’t wait for God’s will,” decried Luis Puig. “The state must implement public policies to manage reality.”
Jorge Orrico framed the problem in terms of nation and citizen security, calling organized crime a “threat to sovereignty” and blaming prohibition for having “created people like Pablo Escobar, who gathered private armies.” “In social sciences, we can talk about certainties only in the past,” he said. “In the future, we can see only trends. And the past hasn’t worked.”
Legislators arguing against the bill pointed to polling that shows that 63 percent of Uruguayans oppose it, and they vowed to bring the measure to a popular referendum. However, when opponents of landmark legislation decriminalizing first-trimester abortions recently tried to bring such a referendum forward, with polls showing the country roughly split on the issue, only 8.65 percent of eligible voters participated in the ballot to authorize the referendum, and it failed. Twenty-five percent of registered voters are required to force a referendum in Uruguay. Such a tactic to repudiate the marijuana bill, despite what the polls say, may not work, either.
Concern about the government’s ability to effectively reduce the black market was likened to the thriving black market in football tickets in Uruguay. Other objections were made regarding the health hazards and fears of creating more addicts.
Darío Pérez Brito, the final FA holdout, portrayed such fears this way: “The real center of debate has been that if this bill passes, the Seven Plagues of Egypt will pass through this country.” Although he expressed his own concerns about its effectiveness, he ultimately threw his support behind the bill.
Aníbal Gloodtdofsky of the opposition Colorado Party stated on the record that he supports the bill because it is “about individual liberty, about permitting people to decide who they are and decide what they want,” although party discipline would not allow him to vote for it.
DEA abuse of power
On August 5, Reuters broke the story on the DEA’s Special Operations Division (SOD) and the practice of “parallel construction” that, much like money laundering, is meant to keep the source of information used by the DEA hidden.
While the Snowden leaks have revealed NSA programs wherein the combination of secrecy and advancing technology that is far outpacing the legal system make their constitutionality murky, at best, the systematic cover-up of the source of any information gleaned from the SOD is clearly a denial of the Sixth-Amendment right of the accused to have evidence against them presented in court. From Reuters:
“You can’t game the system,” said former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. “You can’t create this subterfuge. These are drug crimes, not national security cases. If you don’t draw the line here, where do you draw it?”
Somewhere, we as a society must draw the line between the legitimate need for properly overseen spy craft, with its disconcerting data collection, conducted in the name of national security and law enforcement activities conducted in the name of domestic tranquility. But when it is the law itself that creates a threat to national security, the concept of justice as a balance between individual rights and societal needs, between security and privacy, between the law and the criminal, is blown asunder.
Drug prohibition is a threat to national sovereignty not only because it generates private armies and police corruption, but also because it drives law enforcement to treat citizens as enemies of the state. These revelations about parallel construction shine a light on the escalation of the Drug War into all-out, anything-goes warfare against a manufactured enemy that no amount of secret processes or brute force can vanquish – pushing our nation into the dark arena of state oppression.
Uruguay is a small country of some 3.3 million people, nearly half of which reside in the capital, Montevideo. Most of the marijuana sold on the black market comes from Paraguay. Uruguay is also a transshipment point for hard drugs on their way to Argentina, Brazil, and Europe, as well as a banking center for money laundering. It is considered to be very stable and among the least corrupt nations in Latin America. These factors make Uruguay a perfect test tube for marijuana legalization, which aims to distance pot smokers from criminal elements and allow law enforcement to focus on those far more dangerous problems.
One of the biggest challenges to legalization and decriminalization of marijuana is the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, to which Uruguay is a party.
One way for Uruguay to address this problem would be follow in the footsteps of Bolivia, which, on January 1, 2012, after its appeals to the UN were blocked by the United States, withdrew from the treaty and, on the same day, petitioned to rejoin it with an official rejection of the obligation to abolish the chewing of coca leaves. On January 11, 2013, the UN formalized Bolivia’s readmission to the treaty by recognizing the tradition use of coca as legal.
An August 5, 2013 report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime heralding a second year of decline in coca crop cultivation and yield “brought about by Government-led eradication efforts, as well as dialogue with farmers and social incentives” is a positive signal that, when local “social controls” are implemented, even Bolivia’s government, with all of its problems, can make progress against the black market in harmful illicit drugs.
Another path Uruguay could take would be to gain the international support to modify or amend the international drug convention. A UN General Assembly Special Session has been called for to address drug policy and is slated to take place in 2016. In preparation for this event, organizations around the world will be coordinating and growing support for reform. So now is the time for action!
To learn more about drug policy and find out what you can do to affect change, check out these websites: