Uruguay's bid to legalize marijuana sales would make the small South American country the first state directly involved in the weed business. The United States won't like the idea. But the plan offers glimmers of a market-based solution to the drug violence ravaging Latin America.
The country wedged between Brazil and Argentina is known for its meat cuts, 1960s architecture and investment-grade rated economy. In short it's a boring haven in an exciting neighborhood. But its leftist government is now pushing a revolutionary crime-fighting bill that would charge the state with oversight of the planting, quality certification and controlled distribution of marijuana.
Jose Mujica, Uruguay's 77-year-old president, understands that legalizing the drug business will do more to address trafficking than burning through billions of dollars to fight it. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, has stopped far short of legalizing the business in the United States – which is the top drug consumer in the world. Vice President Joe Biden dismissed calls in March by regional governments to back drug legalization, saying traffickers never go away.
Just south of the Rio Grande, traffickers have turned parts of northern Mexico into lawless fiefdoms where headless corpses turn up daily. Nearly 60,000 people have been killed in Mexico due to drug cartel violence in the last five and a half years. In response to their own problems, several Latin nations such as Brazil and Argentina have relaxed rules on personal drug use.
But none has gone so far as tranquil Uruguay, which has an advantage in testing new boundaries in tackling the drug problem. First, consumption there is already legal. Second, others won't do it for fear of offending the United Sates, which is Mexico's top trade partner. Central American nations also prize U.S. immigration benefits too much to push the weed envelope.
Letting the state run Uruguay's $750-million (U.S.) marijuana market is not ideal, but it would be a good first step toward pursuing other, market-based solutions. Whether it works – as a business or sound public policy – the rest of the region would be wise to pay attention.