WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
8 Aug 2013 | Commentary

Uruguay as Drug Policy Pioneer

By John Walsh

Originally Published by Perspectiva magazine

Uruguay’s leaders are well aware that their new approach to cannabis policy represents a significant—indeed historic—departure from the reigning prohibitionist drug policy paradigm. But that aspect is secondary to their central reason for pursuing this reform: the country’s leaders are convinced that a legal, regulated market offers better prospects for managing drug problems in ways that protect the human rights and promote the health and security of Uruguay’s citizens. Uruguay has no quarrel with the fundamental concern of the international drug control conventions—“the health and welfare of mankind.” But Uruguay’s leaders believe that the means to achieve the treaties’ noble purposes have been defined in unduly narrow and rigid terms.

As a pioneer, Uruguay will need to brave the political pressures from governments that want to intimidate and isolate Uruguay for daring to go first in challenging the orthodoxy and exploring new drug policy alternatives. This pioneering attitude is consistent with Uruguay’s progressive leadership on other social issues, and with the importance that Uruguay gives human rights concerns in its foreign policy, including in the realm of drug policy.

Uruguay’s willingness to be the first country to regulate its cannabis market will help open the door to other governments contemplating similar initiatives. To be sure, Uruguay’s leaders emphasize that their proposal is not meant to serve as a model for anybody else, but is designed specifically to address Uruguay’s own needs. But by showing that such a departure from the status quo is feasible, Uruguay’s actions blaze a path that other countries in the Americas and around the globe can follow.

The political space to pursue such reforms is expanding, and Uruguay is taking advantage of the increased latitude and, in turn, widening it further. One reason why this political space is likely to remain open is that the U.S. federal government—the chief architect and key enforcer of the UN drug control treaties for decades—is now essentially on the sidelines regarding legal, regulated cannabis.

The 2012 votes in the states of Colorado and Washington to legalize and regulate cannabis—with regimes being developed that are similar to that being proposed in Uruguay—leave the U.S. federal government in no position to mount an aggressive international pressure campaign against Uruguay. Uruguay’s timing is therefore serendipitous, and as Uruguay moves ahead with its reform without generating intolerable international push-back, then other governments can feel more secure in following a similar path.
 Ultimately, the fate of Uruguay’s initiative—and its attraction as an example to others—will also depend on how well it achieves its own goals in Uruguay, and whether the shortcomings and difficulties that are likely to arise in such an innovative project are continuously identified and addressed. That process of monitoring, learning, and improving is, indeed, the evolution described within the “Pathways” scenario of the recent OAS drug policy report.

“Pathways” does not mention Uruguay by name, but it is clear that the scenario takes Uruguay’s reform as a springboard towards a wider regional movement toward legal, regulated markets, from now through the year 2025. Of course, the OAS report is not a crystal ball, and only sketches a possible future. But so far Uruguay looks to be doing its part.