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Uruguay may have started a marijuana legalization storm in Latin America

December 30, 2013
December 30, 2013

It’s barely been a month since Uruguay moved to legalize marijuana, and yet the effects of the decision are already being felt well outside of its borders.

Neighboring Argentina, a long-time proponent of keeping marijuana illegal, gave its first indication that Uruguay’s pivot has tempted it to at least consider legalizing the drug. The recently appointed head of Argentina’s counter-narcotics agency, Juan Carlos Molina, admitted as much in a recent radio interview (link in Spanish). “Argentina deserves a good debate about this. We have the capacity to do it. We shouldn’t underestimate ourselves,” he said.

There are signs that Mexico is pondering legalization too. Earlier this fall, shortly after Uruguay’s lower house approved a bill to legalize marijuana, Mexico City’s council proposed legislation that would create a system of marijuana growing co-operatives, which would let people grow pot, but also allow the government to oversee its production and consumption. Possession of small amounts of marijuana has already been decriminalized in Mexico, but the often violent drug trade persists. If Uruguay’s experiment pans out, Mexico, which suffers from some of the highest homicide rates in the world thanks in large part to its dangerous drug cartels, would certainly be tempted to follow in its footsteps.

Many other governments in the region have already dropped or at least eased their hard-line prohibitionist approaches, which have proven unsuccessful at stemming drug consumption. Chile already allows adults to privately consume drugs, and may be on the verge of mulling further legalization of marijuana. Socialist president Michelle Bachelet, for one, has openly stated her support for a reconsideration of the way the country’s law treats the drug. “I am in favor of reviewing marijuana’s current classification as a hard drug,” she said earlier this year. Ecuador has been debating a drug bill that would relax the country’s current legislation, which criminalizes even small amounts of pot. While other countries, including Brazil and Paraguay, haven’t been quite as receptive to Uruguay’s approach, both countries have suffered mightily at the hands of the region’s drug trade—Paraguay is responsible for more illegal marijuana production than any other country in the region, of which roughly 80% makes it way through Brazil.

Pot-friendly legislation still faces obstacles. Support for marijuana legislation across the region is still well below 40%, and a number of governments, including Peru’s, Mexico’s, Brazil’s and Colombia’s have been reasonably steady in their support for US-style wars on drugs. However, a growing proportion of young people in some of the region’s largest cities seem to be slowly changing their views. An overwhelming majority of Argentine, Chilean, and Mexican youth are in favor of legalization—81%, 79%, and 73%, respectively (link in Spanish).

The strongest impetus for change, though, is likely to depend on the outcome of Uruguay’s experiment. Long recognized as one of the region’s least violent nations, Uruguay had seen both drug use and drug-related crime increase in the country in recent years. It decided that it would rather elbow drug lords out of the market than chase them down with guns. If that gamble pans out, the rest of Latin America will more seriously consider following suit.

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