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Is the U.S. the Last Country Still Fighting the Drug War?

Uruguay's new pot law is a big blow to Washington drug policy

Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty

In 1993 Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was killed by police while attempting to escape from a house in Medellín. Some two decades later, Escobar’s inimitable image still dominates our understanding (and, at times, Hollywood’s depiction) of the U.S.-led war on drugs in Latin America. In more recent years, the nihilistic and savage Mexican narcotics “capos” and Afghani insurgents-cum-heroin producers have added additional flavor to our understanding of the illicit actors who provide the drugs that feed Americans’ addictions.

It is easy to forget that Washington’s global war on drugs had started roughly two decades before Escobar’s death, when President Nixon unveiled the counter-narcotics campaigns in Southeast Asia and Mexico. The motive for pursuing these “source control” efforts (as opposed to addressing the issue domestically) was rationalized by a “drugs-as-disease” metaphor that conveniently placed the responsibility for America’s drug scourge overseas.

The irony today is that we are seeing the juggernaut that has been the U.S.-financed and -designed war on drugs being increasingly questioned in Latin America—where the “supply side” activity takes place. It’s especially surprising given that it’s right in America’s historical geopolitical backyard; it is also the case that, until recently, most elected Latin American leaders expressed genuine support for the broad outlines of the supply side approach—namely, that it wasn’t pretty but the alternatives (read: legalization) were far worse. It is still too soon to declare that the United States is basically the only country fighting the drug war as we commonly understand it. But it is certainly the case that Washington’s continued orthodox approach and rhetoric are increasingly out-of-place among Western Hemisphere nations involved in either the production, transit, or consumption of illicit drugs.

Known for its early welfare state begun a century ago and a national soccer team that punches well above its weight, on December 10 sleepy Uruguay (Argentina on Valium, some say) became the clearest example yet of Latin American countries’ drift away from Washington’s narcotized supply side campaign when it established the state regulation (and effective legalization) of marijuana. In some ways, Uruguay is an unexpected drug war apostate given that, unlike Colombia or Mexico, it has historically not been deeply involved in the supply side drug war in the region.

Passed by the Senate in a 16-13 vote after approval by the lower house earlier this year, this law marks the most liberal national pot legalization approach in the world to date. Consumption of pot has been legal in Uruguay since the 1970s, but starting next year the government will grow marijuana and distribute it to licensed pharmacies; the retail price ceiling with be $1 per gram, roughly 30 percent below the current black market rate. Uruguayans will be allowed to grow up to six plants of their own as well as join new 15 to 45-person “clubs” that will grow up to 99 plants each year. (But don’t buy your plane ticket for Montevideo just yet: Foreign tourists will not be eligible to purchase the stuff, potentially avoiding the opprobrium of becoming the Amsterdam of the Southern Cone.)

A former leftist guerrilla leader who was jailed by the police for 14 years—ten in solitary confinement—President José “Pepe” Mujica donates 90 percent of his salary to charity and lives with his wife (also an ex-guerrillero) in a dilapidated apartment, not in the presidential palace. Calling the marijuana law an “experiment,” Mujica framed it as a sober anti-crime measure, not a radical rethinking of a failed puritanical drug war.

According to the country’s drug czar, the new approach will take marijuana smokers “out of the dark alleyways,” where they are tempted to purchase more dangerous drugs. The government’s hope is that the new program will kill off the black market and allow police to focus on more serious illicit drugs like cocaine and its wicked cousin, base cocaine—the highly addictive crack-like drug. And with Uruguayans spending tens of millions on illicit marijuana each year, his government also sees a lucrative revenue source.

It is worth noting that Uruguayans themselves are generally against legalization due to fear that the country will in fact become more crime-ridden or a tourist destination for drug users. An October poll showed that just 29 percent approved. But this was up from only three percent a decade ago. Still, an opposition political party might push for a referendum to repeal the law.

The road to legalization in Uruguay started back in 2009, when three prominent former Latin American presidents—including Colombia’s César Gaviria, who was in office at the height of Escobar’s savage war on the Colombian state and political class—stated publicly that it was time to “break the taboo” on the prohibitionist drug war. Two years later, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, among others, joined the growing chorus of prominent critics.

In April 2012, upon arriving at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, President Barack Obama received an unexpected earful from some of his Latin American counterparts, including summit host and erstwhile reliable U.S. drug war ally Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who told an American journalist:

There’s probably no person who has fought the drug cartels and drug trafficking as I have. But at the same time, we must be very frank: after 40 years of pedaling and pedaling very hard, sometimes you look to your left, you look to your right, and you are almost in the same position. So you have to ask yourself: Are we doing the correct thing?

Cast on the defensive, Obama did acknowledge that the drug war was “a legitimate topic for debate” and that it was “entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are ones that are doing more harm than good in certain places.

The recent surge of drug-related violence in Mexico (that appears to be ebbing somewhat, at least for now) has added to this impression: Over 50,000 people have been killed in the country since former President Felipe Calderón kicked the hornets’ nest in 2006 by vowing to crack down on the drug cartels using all levers of the government, including the military. The belief is also strengthened by shocking levels of drug-related violence in Central America, which have created de facto war zones in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize.

It is a great irony that the United States, which created and aggressively pushed for a massive militarized drugs-interdiction effort regardless of whether Latin America supported the approach, is now the incubator for experiments in legalizing narcotics in states like Washington and Colorado. When asked whether he would enforce federal laws that override the outcome of these referendums, Obama quipped that he had “bigger fish to fry.”

The apparent hypocrisy of this was not lost on many Latin American politicians. Mexican congressman Fernando Belaunzarán of the Party of the Democratic Revolution introduced marijuana legalization a week after the Washington and Colorado votes. Belaunzarán pointed out that “everyone is asking: What sense does it make to keep up such an intense confrontation, which has cost Mexico so much, by trying to keep this substance from going to a country where it’s already regulated and permitted?”

Belaunzarán joined Mujica and a growing list of Latin American leaders in calling for a reconsideration of the U.S.-led prohibitionist model, the enforcement of which they contend has helped turn patches of Latin America into drug-fuelled hellholes. Shortly after the Colorado and Washington referendums passed, the outgoing Calderón, along with leaders from Honduras, Belize and Costa Rica, called for the UN General Assembly to hold a special session on drug prohibition; this is scheduled to begin in early 2016. They also asked the Organization of American States to consider potential reforms to current drug policies in Latin America.

Drug war critics contend that some combination of decriminalization, demilitarization, and legalization of the narcotics trade would save billions in counterproductive interdiction efforts and free up funding for more soft-side efforts, such as prevention and treatment. A recent editorial in the Economist summed up the pro-legalization argument: “Making drugs illegal encourages organized crime, clogs the prisons (especially in America), increases corruption everywhere from Mexico to Afghanistan, and ignores the inexorable law of supply and demand.”

Critics are absolutely correct to point out the massive expense and damage that the war on drugs has inflicted, especially on the usually poorer source and transit countries. And that is why it is easy to support Uruguay’s experiment. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime estimates that there are 162 million cannabis users worldwide, or four percent of the world’s population. Just as Colorado and Washington have embarked upon their own state-level legalization efforts, Uruguay is a laboratory for reform of a drug war that remains highly inertial and impervious to reform and innovation.

The big question is whether the legalization of marijuana provides a model for controlling other drugs, like cocaine. Should we legalize all drugs, everywhere? Or, as some other pot legalization supporters contend, should marijuana be legalized but not other harder drugs? If that’s the case, then, at least for now, do Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay fall into the category of boutique reform in that they represent a one-off solution to marijuana but little else?

As people become more open-minded about drug legalization, it is worth remembering the climate that existed in the United States in the “Just Say No” days of the late 1980s, when families, communities, and politicians were terrified about an apparent crack cocaine scourge. One Harvard criminal justice professor wrote in the New York Times:

The United States is in the early to middle stages of a potentially widespread cocaine epidemic. If the line is held now, we can prevent new users and increasing casualties. So this is exactly not the time to be considering a liberalization of our lawns on cocaine. We need a firm stand by society against cocaine uses to extend and reinforce the messages that are being learned through painful personal experience and testimony.

The scholar’s sentiment might seem trivial now, but there were legitimate reasons why the United States (and often its Latin American allies) clamored to escalate the war on drugs: because drugs destroy societies. Demilitarization and legalization might be the way out or at least certainly preferable to the status quo. But we should also be prepared for the consequences. Alcohol consumption decreased dramatically during Prohibition and increased again after its repeal. Alcohol-related deaths also plummeted during the dry years. This is not to argue that repealing Prohibition was not wise or preferable, but these statistics are a reminder that punitive approaches (the very core of the supply side strategy) cannot be blithely dismissed. The notion that the drug war can simply be reformed through legalization writ large remains fanciful until more specific details are developed and successfully implemented.

It is likely that only a much more robust effort on the demand side is likely to put a dent in U.S. consumption of illegal drugs. Until we see this day, the onus of violence in the drug war will continue to rest squarely on the shoulders of governments and citizens in places such as Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. But we also need to think carefully before we condemn every aspect of the drug war, or choose to abandon it altogether. As with all innovation and change, first do no harm. And until then, all eyes will be on Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay to see how the baby step of pot legalization turns out.

Russell Crandall is a professor of international politics and American foreign policy at Davidson College and a contributing writer to the New Republic. He recently served as a national security aide to President Barack Obama and is the author of the forthcoming book, America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror (Cambridge.)