According to a recent Rassmussen survey, 82 percent of Americans believe that the United States is not winning its “war on drugs,” with a further 13 percent of respondents “not sure.” If it has been a failure, as so many seem to believe, it is surely not for a lack of trying. Since Richard Nixon launched the crusade in 1971, the “war” has cost untold billions of dollars at home and internationally – about $40 billion in 2010 alone – and has seen incarceration rates skyrocket for minor, drug-related offences.
On the ground, however, there has been little change. Americans still love their drugs, with the number of illicit drug users rising to 22.6 million in 2011, and the CDC reporting that around 48 percent of United States’ citizens use one or more prescription drugs every month. If the war on drugs is ever to be won, perhaps it is time for a new strategy.
Decriminalization and regulation of recreational drug use is increasingly being seen as one possible solution. In recent months, Colorado and Washington State have introduced laws which govern how marijuana is grown, sold and taxed, and Attorney General Eric Holder has announced that his office will no longer dole out mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders. Holder has called current policies “unsustainable”, saying that “We must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is, in too many ways, broken.”
Meanwhile, in South America, the small but progressive nation of Uruguay has become the first country in the world to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Liberal-minded President Jose Mujica has already introduced the region’s most tolerant abortion and gay-marriage laws, and now he has signed-off on legislation which will allow small-scale growing for private use and the sale of the drug in government authorized pharmacies. The laws also grant licenses to private contractors who will grow and distribute marijuana to the pharmacies for on-sale to registered consumers.
If this seems like a sign that Uruguay is “going to pot,” think again. Although nearly two-thirds of Uruguayans are said to oppose Mujica’s groundbreaking relaxation of drug laws, that opposition has been muted. The president has promoted the legislation as necessary for public security and as a way of putting clamps on illegal drug barons. For now, most in the nation of 3.3 million are prepared to wait and see where the changes may lead.
Uruguay may be the perfect place to try such a measure. Its crime rate is amongst the lowest in Latin America and it has only around 120,000 who regularly use the drug. Supporters of the legislation see these factors as crucial in controlling any unwanted side-effects of legalization.
Opponents, however, claim that there will be little impact on crime rates in the country, while use of the drug and escalation to harder drugs may increase. Although the new laws will seek to undercut illegal sales by offering pharmacy marijuana at low, low prices, there are fears that users will still want to “top-up” illegally, or that drug lords may divert their attention towards pushing harder and more dangerous drugs.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Uruguay’s decriminalization and regulation of recreational drug use is that it will bring the habit out of the shadows. If problems do arise – and Mujica is happy to call the initiative an “experiment” which may need to be withdrawn – the policies will be easy to reverse. Uruguay’s legislation has had the curious double effect of offering greater freedoms to those who choose to use the drug, while also putting in place greater controls on the way it is sold and used.
If successful, it may turn out to be a profoundly important experiment. Other nations in Latin America who are fighting and losing their own wars on drugs will be watching with interest, while a little further north, this slap in the face for current U.S. drug policies may lead to a greater shift in the way that America’s federal and state governments address one of society’s greatest problems.