The Beginning of the End of the War on Drugs?

Uruguay will be the first country to legalize marijuana.

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A young man rides a bicycle past a graffiti that reads in Spanish "Legal pot" in Montevideo, Uruguay,Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012.
A young man rides a bicycle past a graffiti that reads in Spanish "Legal pot" in Montevideo, Uruguay,Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012.

If Uruguay's Senate votes as expected today, the South American country will become the world's first to legalize marijuana, giving the government the power to regulate, sell and tax the drug. While other countries have decriminalized marijuana before – most notably the Netherlands and Portugal – none has gone the full legalization route, making not just possession lawful, but also the sale and distribution for non-medicinal purposes.

While there are several decent reasons for permitting recreational pot use, Uruguay is, at least according to its public officials, not legalizing the drug out of some concern for infringing on its citizens' freedom or because it could use the tax revenue. Instead, they say the only way to combat narcotraffickers and drug lords, a scourge in Latin America, is to undercut them economically.

"The market is already completely lacking regulations and in the hands of criminals," says Julio Calzada, who heads Uruguay's National Secretariat on Drugs. "The only way to stop this is to remove the profitability from drug traffickers' business and put it into the hands of the state." The country plans to set prices low enough that they will compete with black market drugs, banking on easy availability and higher quality making up for any subsequent price drop in illicit markets.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

"This is not about being free and open. It's a logical step. We want to take users away from clandestine business," Uruguayan President Jose Mujica told The Guardian. "We don't defend marijuana or any other addiction. But worse than any drug is trafficking."

This is an explicit argument for what should now be considered a well-known fact: The "War on Drugs," as it's called, is a failure. Despite the $1 trillion spent and the scores of people thrown behind bars in the United States alone, drugs are no less available than they were when the war was launched by President Richard Nixon in 1971. In fact, all that's happened is prices have dropped and drug potency has increased, according to a study in the British Medical Journal, while drug cartels have thrived.

Uruguay is forging ahead even though polls show that most of the country is not in favor of legalizing marijuana. That stands in stark contrast to the U.S., where the drug is still illegal on the federal level even as a majority of Americans are now, for the first time, in favor of legalizing it. According to a recent Gallup poll, 58 percent of Americans support legalization, up 10 percentage points in the last year. (Two states, Washington and Colorado, recently voted to legalize the drug, and the Justice Department has said it won't challenge those laws.)

For a parallel to today's drug debates, look no further than last week's 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, the U.S. ban on alcohol consumption (a policy debacle that still has effects today). After all, it was organized crime that flourished thanks to the demand for illegal liquor during the 1920s, and calls for the repeal of Prohibition were driven, in part, by horror at the rampant "booze-related mob violence," as the Denver Post's Colleen O'Conner put it. All in all, it's a tale not so different from the one Uruguay is telling today.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Marijuana Use Be Legalized?]

Of course, there are concerns with legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, drugs, but if the experience in other places that have experimented with it is any indication, those concerns are seriously overblown. After Portugal decriminalized marijuana (and other major drugs) in 2001, the number of addictions and amount of drug usage plummeted. California's legalization of medical marijuana, meanwhile, has also had few problems, with none of the fears of opponents actually coming to pass. And Uruguay is already taking steps to educate its citizens about drug addiction, hoping to head off any negative impacts that legalization might have there.

Meanwhile, legalization could save the U.S. some $13.7 billion annually, according to a paper by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron that was endorsed by hundreds of other economists.

So hopefully Uruguay – along with Washington and Colorado – is taking the first step towards putting an end to decades of failure and folly in a war that was never worth winning in the first place. "This is an experiment, without a doubt, and it will have a demonstrable effect. That could be important for the world because it could be the start of a new paradigm," said Julio Bango, one of the Uruguayan legislators who drafted the legalization bill. Indeed, if there's anything that could use a new paradigm, it's the pointless crusade against drugs that the West, and especially the U.S., has spent the last few decades pursuing.

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