Uruguay says it may sell marijuana to combat cocaine

Uruguay

To fight cocaine, Uruguay may start selling marijuana.

The unusual idea, announced Wednesday by Uruguayan officials, would be one of the boldest steps yet among Latin American leaders to alter a war on drugs driven solely by prohibition, which increasingly is resisted in the Americas as a failed strategy.

Under a plan proposed by President Jose Mujica, marijuana would be sold by the government to adults and the taxes funneled toward drug rehabilitation, according to Uruguayan media. Drug users would be tracked in a government database to quash the resale of marijuana on the black market.

Marijuana laws are already liberal in Uruguay, where possessing marijuana for personal issue is not a crime and there are no laws against using it. However, “the idea isn’t to make it totally free,” Mujica cautioned El Observador. “We’re going to control it through a state network of distribution.”

Selling marijuana is part of a package of measures meant to combat the abuse of cocaine and pasta basica, a drug akin to crack, diverting Uruguayan drug users toward marijuana instead. The measures come after a recent rash of gang and drug crime in the ordinarily peaceful nation.

If Uruguayan lawmakers agree, theirs would be the first country where the government has not only legalized or regulated marijuana but taken over the market, experts say. Backers of drug legalization and regulation praised the idea as an intriguing step forward.

“Mothers wanting to protect their children should realize that a strictly regulated market is much safer than an illegal market,” said Amanda Fielding, founder of the Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform based in Britain. "We need to let governments experiment -- cautiously -- with policies that might minimize harm."

That argument was disputed by drug opponents, who contend that getting government into the marijuana business won't curb the black market or stop users from moving on to harder drugs.

"Why would people pay taxes and higher prices and put themselves out there to be known by the government?" asked Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation based in Florida. Since the government will only sell to adults, "kids will become the target of the black market."

Uruguay has put forward its plan as Latin American leaders express growing frustration with the traditional war on drugs, arguing it has failed to kill off the drug trade or ease violence. Earlier this year, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina suggested decriminalizing drugs. The president of Colombia and other leaders raised the idea at an April summit in Cartagena, spurring a new study of alternative strategies; Brazil and Argentina are already weighing drug decriminalization laws.

Unswayed, President Obama has brushed off the idea of legalizing drugs, saying it isn’t the answer. The United States also has resisted carving out exceptions in the drug war, opposing a Bolivian attempt to exempt the traditional practice of chewing coca leaves from a U.N. convention on narcotics. The Uruguayan idea is expected to face the same fears of creating a slippery slope.

“It’s very clear that the U.S. and U.N. drug control system don’t look kindly on this kind of opening in the debate,” said John Walsh, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The United States is looking to put this genie back in the bottle. But that’s not going to happen.”

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Uruguayan government officials Eduardo Bonomi, Alberto Breccia, Daniel Olesker and Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro present a package of measures to address the insecurity in Montevideo on Wednesday, including a plan for the government to sell marijuana. Credit: Ivan Franco / European Pressphoto Agency.

 
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