What Uruguay Can Teach Us about Legalizing Drugs

Unlike successful legalization efforts in the United States, Uruguay's experience is a lesson in how not to legalize drugs.
Unlike legalization efforts in the United States, Uruguay’s experience is a lesson in how not to legalize drugs. (Flickr)

EspañolThe future of marijuana legalization in Uruguay is uncertain. October’s presidential election could spell the end of an initiative that was born with original sin. Excessive intervention, lack of public support, and the coming election could prove to be a deadly combination for Uruguay’s controversial marijuana policy.

The Senate’s approval of President José “Pepe” Mujica’s proposal in December 2013 was achieved against all odds. Opposition parties, along with some members of Mujica’s own Broad Front (FA) party, joined a majority of Uruguayans in expressing their displeasure with the initiative.

Prior to the law’s passage, a survey by the polling firm Equipos Consultores showed that two-thirds of Uruguayans were opposed to the legalization of marijuana. Six months later, according to a study by Vanderbilt University, public opposition still stood at nearly 60 percent.

Less than a month before the elections, candidates from the two primary opposition groups — the National Party and the Colorado Party — have each expressed a desire to repeal the law. Moreover, even if the Broad Front continues to control the Executive, the law could still be in danger.

Last week, former president and current candidate Tabaré Vázquez said he will use the law to “rehabilitate” marijuana users: “There will be a registry of drug users, and this registry … will give us a better idea of who is caught up in drugs. This will give the state the ability to rehabilitate these people at an earlier stage.”

Vázquez plans to replace jail time with coercive hospitalization for convicted drug users, continuing to violate individual rights.

Law 19.172 is fighting to survive, but it’s potential failure comes as no surprise. A political theory known as the Overton Window tells us the law is very likely to fail.

Window of the Politically Acceptable

The Overton Window helps us understand why marijuana legalization efforts in the United States — both for recreational and medicinal purposes — may be more likely to succeed than efforts in Uruguay.

Joseph Overton (1960-2003), who served as senior vice president of the Mackinak Center for Public Policy, established a theory of political change. He suggested that only a small set of policy choices will fit within the “window” of what is considered politically acceptable. These are the proposals that a lawmaker can actually consider, while maintaining a realistic possibility of winning an election.

The window, however, is not static, and politically viable options shift along with cultural changes.

In the case of cannabis legalization in Uruguay, initiatives such as the Students for Liberty “End the Drug War” campaign, reports from the Global Commission on Drugs, and the work of various academic organizations and political activists have held that window open.

However, at this point in time, high levels of public opposition to the new drug policy is evidence that the legalization of marijuana, even with strong state regulation, is not within the range of acceptable political alternatives in Uruguay.

This political reality must have been obvious to former Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle (2000-2005) as well. Before leaving office, he famously stated that “all drugs must be legalized,” even though no reform to this end was advanced during is tenure.

For his part, the National Party presidential candidate Luis Lacalle Pou says he does not have any plans to repeal the law authorizing the personal cultivation of cannabis. While the law’s impact on organized crime and other negative consequences of prohibition may be limited, it is likely a necessary step the country must take to achieve a realistic drug policy.

Success of Popular Action in the United States

Marijuana reform in the United States is an excellent example of the Overton Window at work.

Within the country, 14 states have decriminalized marijuana possession, 20 others have legalized its medical use, and two states have legalized it entirely. In Florida, Oregon, Alaska, California, and Washington DC, voters will head to the polls on November 4 to decide the future legal status of marijuana.

With each of these referendums, harmful drug laws are being changed through the direct action of US citizens, rather than the political moves of the ruling party, like in Uruguay.

Nothing New Here

The prohibitionist approach has not worked. Today, world leaders espouse progressive drug policies as if they were a novel concept, but these ideas have been promoted time and again by proponents of libertarianism since at least the 19th century.

Vices are not crimes,” posited the US lawyer and libertarian entrepreneur Lysander Spooner back in 1875. Since its creation in 1972, the Libertarian Party of the United States has called for the repeal of “victimless crimes,” including the use of drugs. Liberals from Murray Rothbard to Milton Friedman have agreed that prohibition constitutes a form of aggression toward individual rights.

Each day that we continue to live under policies that generate unnecessary deaths, promote organized crime, and destroy entire societies is one more added to the tally of this dark period in our history.

Dismantling the legislative framework that persecutes and punishes both users and sellers is no easy task. In democratic systems, where majority rules, and where power-hungry politicians seek to please the masses without regard for individual rights, mass public acceptance is an indispensable condition of any potential policy initiative.

Understanding the mechanics of political change allows us to adopt strategies that expand the range of individual freedoms. It is not a matter of desisting on ideal situations and giving up on a just world; we only need to adapt to the circumstances. With perseverance, change will come.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

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