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Imagine a post-drug war world. After decades of brutal violence, huge costs and corrupting cartels, the Americas are trying to picture it. They produce and ship the bulk of the cocaine that enters the US, the world's top user. Now leaders are discussing alternatives to the war on drugs, such as decriminalizing or legally regulating parts of the drug trade. The taboo is broken. 'Legalize it' is gaining ground.
With marijuana decriminalized, Uruguay’s government considers growing pot. But government green has stoners peeved.
The father-of-three spent a year in prison in 2007, but continues to cultivate marijuana at his home in Montevideo, and even helped organize a competition earlier this month for cannabis growers.
He says domestic production now stands at 6 percent of an estimated 50,000 pounds consumed annually in Uruguay. The rest is trafficked from Paraguay by small cartels.
“The government should play an overseeing role,” Vaz tells a meeting of the National Committee for Cannabis Legalization before slurping on a mate, Uruguay’s ubiquitous hot herbal drink.
He wants licenses for growers and regular inspections by authorities to ensure clubs don’t sell to non-members or under-18s.
“It’s far better for those who want to start smoking to be guided by an association rather than by a drug dealer,” he says.
Sebastian Sabini is president of the parliamentary commission that is debating the bill and a young lawmaker who admits to having smoked marijuana.
He says home cultivation could be incorporated into the new law.
President Mujica has also lauded the Basque model.
“We think the two bills are complementary,” says Sabini, who believes it “absurd” that people like Castilla who grow marijuana for personal use should face criminal charges.
“The idea, though, is for the state to be able to supply 100 percent of users who today have to resort to the black market.”
Mujica has said that 150 hectares of plantations — an area roughly the size of 280 American football fields — would be required to meet demand. The government has hinted it will use military land to ensure security.
Sabini also launched a fierce defense of the bill, which, according to the president, would need 60 percent approval in Congress to pass.
He said the plans do not flout the UN narcotics convention since they are designed to improve the health of Uruguay’s 18,000 marijuana users by regulating quality.
And he insists a consumption limit is not Orwellian, but a necessary measure to prevent Uruguay from becoming an exporter of cannabis.
“We need to ensure we meet internal demand,” says Sabini, a member of the left-wing Tupamaros political movement. “But there needs to be a limit so people don’t sell to neighboring countries.”
The president has also said a private company would be contracted to sell the cannabis.
Castilla, though, is far from convinced by the strategy. “This is in no way a progressive bill,” she says.
She has been a staunch advocate of marijuana law reform since she lived in Brazil in the 1970s, writing two books on the drug and surviving an 11-day hunger strike last year in protest of her arrest.
But Calzada, the secretary general at Uruguay’s drugs committee, claims that by separating the marijuana and hard drug markets, consumption of the latter and violent crime will drop.
Uruguay has an estimated 5,000 regular users of “paco,” a highly addictive cocaine-based paste, according to the drugs commission.
“We seize about 10 percent of all marijuana,” Calzada says in his office overlooking a murky River Plate estuary. “And while it’s impossible to stop contraband, this law would mean the state — not dealers — controls the 90 percent.”
Despite accusations of being totalitarian, the bill represents a kick in the teeth for Washington’s “war on drugs” in Latin America, first given impetus by President Nixon in the 1970s.
There have been more than 50,000 drug war-related deaths in Mexico since the government began waging a military assault against the cartels in late 2006.
“Uruguay has been at the fore of social reforms since the beginning of the 20th century,” says Martin Collazo of ProDerechos, a group that lobbies for the legalization of marijuana.
The country’s 1918 constitution made it one of the first Latin American countries to officially separate the state and Catholic Church.
It has also supported Bolivian President Evo Morales’ call to legalize the coca leaf — the key ingredient in cocaine but harmless in its raw state.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, last month praised Uruguay as “an example to the world for its promotion of peace and human rights.”
“People and politicians are putting up with a useless and unjust war,” says Calzada. “How much longer do we need to wait for an alternative?”