Risky Bud-ness: Why Uruguay’s Legalization Means an End to The “War on Drugs”

By: Benjamin Mattern, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

The Failed War on Drugs   

The United States spends well over $50 billion annually on international drug eradication and counternarcotic operations. Nevertheless, all of its efforts have failed to disrupt the supply chain of illicit drugs flowing across its borders, as it remains the world’s largest drug market and user. U.S. domestic propaganda and prevention programs are not fairing much better, where despite the highest incarceration rate in the world (1 in every 108 adults), drug use and abuse continues to penetrate society. [1]

The War on Drugs began in 1971 when the Nixon Administration unilaterally proclaimed drugs as public enemy number one. Since then every U.S. President after Jimmy Carter has undertaken efforts to stomp out the production, sale, and consumption of illicit narcotics. Despite the United States’ good intentions, its endeavors have spectacularly deteriorated. The net availability of illicit substances has grown, according to the fact book at drugwarfacts.org, which cites tobacco and marijuana as the most widely used drugs in the world, and states that “overall drug consumption continues to spread at the global level.” This has led to dramatically increased incarceration rates in many countries including Belize, El Salvador, and Mexico.  U. S. incarceration rates have also jumped from 601 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents in 1995 to 737 inmates per 100,000 residents in 2005. [2] Furthermore, drug-related deaths and violent crimes in the Americas have spiraled out of control, with murder rates in the United States nearly reaching 10 per 100,000 residents three separate times in the period between 1970 and 2000, and over 70,000 drug-related deaths in Mexico since 2006. [3] [4]

It is high time for the blind negligence and stubbornness to stop. The United States cannot continue to throw unsustainable amounts of money and weapons at an international issue that only produces negative results. This is not only a thinly veiled excuse for informed policy, but it is also indicative of a lapse in responsible hemispheric leadership and displays a dangerous backwardness in our modern political regime. A liberal democracy is designed specifically to listen to its constituency and refrain from spending billions of tax dollars on policies that have proven ineffective.

But for the last 40 years, the United States government has failed to listen and continues to waste funds on school programs that do not diminish adolescent drug use (high school student use has remained constant around 50 percent since 1996), and court and prison systems that punish non-violent offenders rather than rehabilitate them (those incarcerated for a drug offense accounted for 49 percent of the total growth in prison population from 1995 to 2003). [5] [6]

In the case of international anti-narcotics aid, the truth is that it encourages violence. Colombia’s insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), “clearly believes that U.S. counter-narcotics assistance is…disguised as counter-insurgency assistance,” and “the FARC has stressed the threat that U.S. military assistance to Colombia poses to the peace process.” [7] In reality, militarization of the drug war only breeds further violence and crime. The War on Drugs has fundamentally failed; it is time for Washington to try something radical and different. Recent developments in Uruguay might shed some light on the answer.

What Does Uruguay’s Legalization Mean for International Drug Policy?

On December 23, 2013, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalize the distribution, sale, and consumption of marijuana for recreational purposes. [8] President José Mujica pushed the initiative through the left-leaning legislature with the intention of decreasing the country’s already low crime rate, separating the marijuana market from the more violent cocaine and heroin markets, battling regional drug trafficking problems, and generating tax revenue to be used for drug education and treatment. [9] With a legitimate state-run and regulated market for marijuana, Uruguay hopes to undercut the prices charged by Latin American traffickers and cartels, which would slice off a large portion of their profits. This, along with international and regional support, would either force the illegal groups out of business or pressure them to focus on the production and distribution of cocaine and heroin, both of which can be more directly targeted and enforced by national security and police forces.

As President Mujica puts it, “I want to rescue society’s right to experiment. If it didn’t exist, we would be condemned to paralysis, stuck in a photo that never changes a bit. There is no other way to be able to advance.” [10] Mujica is not the only Latin American leader encouraging this kind of reform. Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Mexico have all stated in international forums that they support a constructive alternative to the War on Drugs. [11] Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina echoes the growing sentiment among those egregiously affected by the U.S. war: “We cannot keep on doing the same thing and expect different results.” [12] He urges global leaders to “seek new approaches to drug use centered on public health and prevention and designed to reduce violence and respect human rights.” [13]

International experimentation with decriminalization and regulation of marijuana and even harder drugs has had positive effects in several places. In Portugal, the abolishment of criminal penalties for personal possession caused “illegal drug use among teens [to] decline…and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing of dirty needles [to] drop.” [14] Many states are bound to follow in the footsteps of Uruguay and Portugal once overwhelming evidence favoring alternative strategies is solidified. Thus, it is in the United States’ best interest to begin dealing with drug addiction and possession not as crimes, but as a larger social health issue. This would set a good example for the international community and may reinstate a portion of our lost credibility in the hemisphere and around the globe.

Drug Realities and Domestic Pressures in the U.S.

Today, 21 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have some form of legislation decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, most often for medical purposes. [15] Only two states, Colorado and Washington, have gone the full distance and legalized possession of up to one ounce for recreational purposes. While Washington lacked the appropriate infrastructure to initiate rollout immediately following legalization, Colorado has set up a state-regulated supply chain based off of the medical dispensary system. In January alone Colorado collected 2 million USD in marijuana sales tax, and statewide outlets are expected to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue every year as consumption increases. [16] The income will then be funneled into social programs including public schools and health campaigns that warn against “stoned-driving” and teen drug use. [17] While these great strides forward are indicative of the growing pro-legalization trend in America (the most recent Gallup poll shows that 58 percent of Americans support legalization), any legislative action on the part of states is in direct contradiction to federal law, which still officially categorizes marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic. [18] [19] This group is defined as “drugs, substances, or chemicals…with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” and includes much more harmful drugs like heroin, LSD, MDMA (ecstasy) and peyote. [20] Contrary to this classification, death as a direct result of the sole consumption of cannabis has never once been recorded, and researchers have documented a myriad of positive medical implications. [21] Thus, the age-old marijuana taboo defies substantive findings. [22] However, the majority of Americans are speaking out and slowly, inertia is building towards a change in federal policy. If the experiments in Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay bring favorable outcomes in terms of a decrease in violent crime and drug trafficking, then smart leaders will take the logical step toward a better future.

The Next Step

Needless to say, a strong start towards the realization of this future would be the legalization and regulation of currently illegal narcotics, marijuana being first and foremost. The Economist aptly observes that this would lead to an overall increase in drug use, but high taxes and educational campaigns would reduce the potential for abuse.  When drugs are treated as a public health issue, “legalization offers the opportunity to deal with addiction properly.” [23] Furthermore, in the United States and Europe this would cut out a large portion of trafficking profits, produce considerable tax revenue to be spent on social-wellness programs and education, benefit the economy by creating jobs in the addiction-prevention, drug education, and health fields, save billions of tax dollars, and replace people convicted of non-violent crimes with dangerous criminals.

Thus, when demand is tampered, attempts to eradicate production and trafficking could move towards de-militarization, saving millions of lives in the process. As unrealistic as it may seem, providing earmarked funds—instead of weapons, aggressive training, and security forces—to countries in Latin America plagued by cartel-driven violence could help end the cycle of bloodshed that the Drug War generates. Similarly, carefully monitored financial aid to drug-producing states could help subsidize an agricultural switch to food crops instead of coca, poppy, and cannabis plants. It would also support social and cultural development programs in communities that are struggling to resist the pull of dangerously lucrative cartel operations. Some may argue that sending federal money to possibly corrupt governments in Latin America that may be involved in drug production and trafficking is counter productive to the initial purpose. However, with the oversight and support of the international community, and its many bureaucratic apparatuses such as the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, strategically targeted aid could serve as a momentous boon to the struggle currently taking place.


The only way that drug-producing countries like Colombia and Mexico will be able to make any headway on their side of the effort is if the United States and Europe begin curbing and treating domestic demand for illicit substances. Therefore, Uruguay’s historical initiative should establish an important template for other countries to follow; and with enough public support and logical legislative action, solutions to our current problems can begin to take effect. Though a drug-free world is an impossible utopia, there is a better way to address drug production, trafficking, and violence than adding fuel to the fire. After more than 40 years of policies that do absolutely nothing but encourage murder, poverty, and drug abuse, progressive change is the only option we have left.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.  For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.


[1] “Drug War Facts Factbook” (Common Sense for Drug Policy, November, 2007). http://www.drugwarfacts.org/factbook.pdf (June 25, 2014).

[2] “Drug War Statistics” (Drug Policy Alliance, 2014). http://www.drugpolicy.org/drug-war-statistics (June 25, 2014).

[3] “Drug War Facts Factbook” (Common Sense for Drug Policy, November 2007). http://www.drugwarfacts.org/factbook.pdf (June 25, 2014).

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Jeffrey Miron, “International Analysis: Uruguay and Marijuana Legalization,” (CATO Institute, January 7, 2014). http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/international-analysis-uruguay-marijuana-legalization (June 26, 2014).

[9] Leonardo Haberkorn, “Uruguay’s Legal Marijuana Market Begins Rollout,” (May 6, 2014). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/06/uruguay-marijuana_n_5275931.html (June 26, 2014).

[10] Ibid

[11] Phillip Smith, “Latin American Leaders Push Drug Reform at UN,” (Activist Post, September 27, 2013). http://www.activistpost.com/2013/09/latin-american-leaders-push-drug-reform.html (June 27, 2014).

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Maia Szalavitz, “Drugs in Portugal: Did Decriminalization Work?,” (Time, April 26, 2009). http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1893946,00.html (June 25, 2014).

[15] “State Marijuana Laws Map,” (Governing, April 22, 2014). http://www.governing.com/gov-data/state-marijuana-laws-map-medical-recreational.html (June 28, 2014).

[16] Kelly Erb, “It’s No Toke: Colorado Pulls in Millions in Marijuana Revenue,” (Forbes, March 11, 2014). http://www.forbes.com/sites/kellyphillipserb/2014/03/11/its-no-toke-colorado-pulls-in-millions-in-marijuana-tax-revenue/ (June 29, 2014).

[17] Ibid

[18] “Drug Schedules,” (DEA). http://www.justice.gov/dea/druginfo/ds.shtml (June 29, 2014).

[19] “Surveys and Polls,” (NORML). http://norml.org/component/zoo/category/surveys-polls (June 29, 2014).

[20] Ibid

[21] “Recent Research on Medical Marijuana,” (NORML). http://norml.org/component/zoo/category/recent-research-on-medical-marijuana (June 29, 2014).

[22] “Annual Causes of Death in the United States,” (Drug War Facts). http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/Causes_of_Death#sthash.oSk3zxMQ.dpbs (June 30, 2014).

[23] “How To Stop the Drug Wars,” (The Economist, March 5, 2009). http://www.economist.com/node/13237193 (June 30, 2014).