What do you get if you cross the mass abolition of a widely used product and the militarisation of the countries where it is primarily produced? The brutal death of hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans! But wait, there’s actually more than one answer: the displacement of millions, the reluctant censorship of the press, hindered development etc. Ok, so the punch line is weak, but here’s some food for thought or, if you will, some weed for thought.
The facts are these: in Mexico alone, since 2006 when President Calderon stepped up the countries war against the drug cartels, around 100,000 have died in the anti-trafficking conflict. The American’s futile war on drugs has seen around $40bn spent each year with little results and, where the war does have an impact, it is often negative and far removed from the consciences of the average American.
Leaving aside the fact that drugs are evil, and if you ever touch them you will a) burn in hell, b) definitely die within hours of using them and c)get hunted and killed in your dreams by an angry DEA agent, the worst effects could not be more distant from the cosy, middle-class suburban sofa you decide to light-up on. No. For every spliff you smoke, for every line of coke you snort, there is ultimately a myriad of butterfly-effect style consequences associated with it.
The greatest of these is empowering the uncontrollable, often sadistic people who control the supply-chain. It is capitalism without rule of law. In Britain, our drugs come from North Africa and South-East Asia, with a little bit coming from across the Atlantic. Americans, however, see a large portion of their drugs produced and fought for by the infamous cartels spread all across South and Central America. Once grown, the drugs are shoved up the arsehole of some unfortunate mule and dealt throughout the country, often by someone in the unmerciful revolving door trap between the streets and prison (another tragic effect of US drug policy). Like with any business, by buying these drugs we empower the supplier. We justify their actions. So, what’s the option? There are two solutions, boycott or change the supplier.
In Uruguay, it is the latter option they are in the process of choosing. Boycotting never works; next time my unspecified friend gets high I will try to tell him about the time 35 mutilated bodies dumped on a main road during rush hour or the woman who was beheaded, and stung up by a keyboard wire, for blogging (gulp) about drug cartels. As I tell him, he will look at me with his glazed, puppy-dog eyes and no doubt, as he always does when high, see the funny side of it. No, drugs are a product that people want and with lack of a better option, users will carry on buying from the same people.
Anyway, as I was saying, Uruguay is in the process of legalising marijuana. They aren’t merely following in the footsteps of other ‘liberal’ countries, but rather taking one huge leap further. They are planning to cultivate, tax and sell weed making it the first country in the world to do so.
The government of President Mujica, famous for other ‘liberal’ – and successful – proposals including gay marriage and abortion rights, narrowly won the Congressional vote by 4 delegates on the basis that by bringing users out of the shadows, regulation and treatment would become easier. Supporters of the bill also claim that by removing the power from illegal producers, the violence and intimidation associated with the trade would be reduced.
But it isn’t just members of the ‘red tide’ looking at the option of legalisation. Renowned conservatives such as Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos and Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina have openly called for a debate on the issue. Even Mexico’s Calderon, whose policies allowed for the drug war to explode, has said that now might well be the time to discuss the merits of legalisation.
The discussion of the social and health effects will continue to be had. For many, marijuana is indeed a gateway drug and with up to 8% of Uruguayans claiming to be ‘regular or occasional’ users, it might seem a terrifying prospect to have 200,000 crack addicts on the street. It must be pointed out as well that the legislation has the outspoken support of only 22% of the country and has been criticised by the Association of Chemists and Pharmacists of Uruguay.
In celebrated war journalist Ed Vulliamy’s book Amexica, he explores the cities and towns left desolate or broken by the fierce war being fought south of the Rio Grande. He tells vivid stories of executions, racketeering and brutality which paint this troubled part of Mexico as a war zone rather than one of the countries promising to lead the 21st Century.
In this blog I will often argue that Latin America’s best days are soon to come. The drug war and the relentless coverage it receives in the west will do little to help this. The region has to make a choice between continuing the failed US War on Drugs or initiating a new plan which delegitimises the barbaric drug cartels. With Uruguay possibly becoming a testing ground for a wholly new approach, governments in the region must watch closely and respond accordingly to the results.
Pictures credited to AP, Frente a Atiri and hashman. I do not own any of the rights to these images