Against the wishes of the prevailing drug control regime, last month the government of Uruguay took the first steps to legalize marijuana. The legalization bill, which passed 50-46 in Uruguay’s House of Deputies seeks to bring "the control and regulation of the importation, exportation, plantation, cultivation, the harvest, the production, the acquisition, the storage, the commercialization and the distribution of cannabis and its by-products" under state control. While the decision still has to pass a vote in the Senate, it is expected that a favorable decision regarding legalization will be made as early as this fall.
At the most fundamental level, the new law seeks to take drug traffickers out of the equation. The legalization of marijuana will allow the government to focus on fighting the production and distribution of harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
Under the proposed law, citizens will be allowed to purchase a regulated amount of marijuana per month from pharmacies (40 grams), join a cooperative or grow up to six plants in their residence. Those who cultivate marijuana illegally will be subject to stiff prison terms. Sales will be restricted to individuals 18 years or older—and driving under the influence of marijuana will remain a criminal act.
While many skeptics will doubt the effectiveness of such a program, Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica has argued that the law is a policy experiment—and is by no means set in stone. If the policy proves to be a failure Mujica has stated that he has no qualms going back to the status quo.
The innovative position taken by Uruguay should be taken under consideration by the wider Caribbean. It should come as no surprise that like anywhere else—recreational marijuana use is common across the Caribbean. The total prohibition of marijuana alongside the legal sale and consumption of alcohol and tobacco is an outdated model which creates more harm than good.
This is primarily because the majority of the drug prevention and policing programs are coordinated by the U.S. government—justified through the War on Drugs. Countries such as Belize and Jamaica have had national discussions about the legalization of marijuana—but have backed away due to fears of becoming “decertified” under U.S. narcotics control programs.
In 2001, a “Ganja Commission” was formed in Jamaica by professors, reverends, other influential leaders in order to understand the impact that decriminalization would have on the island. The report concluded that it was “recommending the decriminalization of ganja for personal, private use by adults and for use as a sacrament for religious purposes” and that “the prosecution of simple possession for personal use and the use itself diverts the justice system from what ought to be a primary goal, namely the suppression of the criminal trafficking in substances, such as crack/cocaine, that are ravaging urban and rural communities with addiction and corrupting otherwise productive people.”
Despite the findings, Jamaican Prime Ministers have failed to move forward – with former Prime Minister Bruce Golding stating that “Decriminalization can invoke international consequences which would pose severe challenges for us” and “That certification has significant impact in terms of our trade arrangements with the United States.”
Countries which do not follow along with aggressive policing tactics related to the War on Drugs face the risk of decertification. Decertification occurs when the U.S. decides that countries involved in the drug trade (either as producers, traffickers or both) are not cooperating effectively with U.S. counter narcotics programs. The consequences of decertification include the withdrawal of U.S. aid, a refusal of visas, U.S. opposition to multilateral loans and possible trade sanctions. In 2012, the U.S. government identified the following countries as major illicit drug transit and producers: Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Belize, Bolivia, Burma, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela.
These countries are annually blacklisted and chastised for failing to live up to U.S. counter narcotics efforts. It is readily apparent that current U.S. drug policies are hypocritical and self-serving—seen by the fact that in November 2012, Washington and Colorado both passed laws which legalized the consumption and possession of marijuana for personal use. Both states are currently in the process of establishing a regulatory system which would govern the licensing, taxation and distribution of marijuana. Furthermore, in 2009, it was reported that in California, marijuana had become the state’s largest cash crop—accounting for an estimated $14 billion in untaxed revenue.
Following such a policy of regulation and taxation of the sale of marijuana would provide much needed resources to the region’s economy—allowing governments in the Caribbean to spend more time and resources on intercepting those trafficking harder drugs and developing community based treatment and education programs. In addition, such a policy would not penalize the many small farmers throughout the Caribbean who cultivate marijuana in the absence of any viable market for agricultural produce.
Based on the events in Uruguay and several areas of the United States it appears that the conversation regarding the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana is taking an important turn towards discussion instead of a one way lecture on its evils. It is policy innovation such as that undertaken by Uruguay which has the potential to change public perception about the role of marijuana cultivation and consumption in society—placing it amongst controlled substances such as alcohol and tobacco. It is about time that the countries of the Caribbean come forward with their own individual policies on marijuana which reflects their own national security and development interests—instead of those of the United States.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, "The Other Side of Paradise," visit nacla.org/blog/other-side-paradise. Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.