Skip to main content

Finally, a nation legalizes pot

By Hannah Hetzer
updated 6:43 PM EST, Wed December 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In Uruguay, a proposal supported across the social spectrum to make pot legal has passed
  • Hannah Hetzer: Uruguay knows prohibition hasn't worked and wastes lives and dollars
  • Hetzer: Uruguay's leaders chose regulation of an existing reality, which also fights crime
  • Hetzer: The world should take a lesson from this tiny country with a history of political reform

Editor's note: Hannah Hetzer, who is based in Montevideo, Uruguay, is the policy manager of the Americas for the Drug Policy Alliance.

(CNN) -- In a closely watched vote, Uruguayan lawmakers approved a proposal to make recreational marijuana legal for adults and to regulate its production, distribution and sale. Once it's signed by President Jose Mujica, who initiated the proposal, Uruguay will be the first nation in the world to fully legalize the drug.

In the year and a half since President Mujica announced the proposal in June 2012 as part of a comprehensive package aimed at fighting crime and public insecurity, a strong coalition of LGBT, women's rights, health, student, environmental and human rights organizations joined forces with trade unions, doctors, musicians, lawyers, athletes, writers, actors and academics under the banner of Regulacion Responsable (Responsible Regulation) to support the initiative and created a lively public campaign in favor of the proposal.

Hannah Hetzer
Hannah Hetzer

Under the proposal, people will have four ways to access marijuana: medical marijuana through the Ministry of Public Health, domestic cultivation of up to six plants, membership clubs similar to those found in Spain and licensed sale to adults in pharmacies. The bill was approved in the Chamber of Deputies in late July and passed in the Chamber of Senators on Tuesday.

There appears to be a shift in the United States in favor of relaxing marijuana laws, a topic that has dipped in and out of the national conversation for decades. Public perceptions about pot have come a long way, from the dire warnings of "Reefer Madness" to growing acceptance of medical marijuana. There appears to be a shift in the United States in favor of relaxing marijuana laws, a topic that has dipped in and out of the national conversation for decades. Public perceptions about pot have come a long way, from the dire warnings of "Reefer Madness" to growing acceptance of medical marijuana.
History of marijuana in America
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: History of marijuana in America Photos: History of marijuana in America

Why marijuana, why now and why Uruguay? The following three simple reasons have a lot to do with today's outcome:

Because it's the smart thing to do.

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity, and Uruguay knows this. For 40 years, marijuana prohibition simply hasn't worked. Billions of dollars have been spent on repression, but marijuana use has only gone up -- along with the number of lives lost to failed policies.

The tens of thousands who have died in Mexico's drug war -- estimates in 2012 ranged from 60,000 to 70,000 over six years -- Central America's globally high homicide rates and the United States' racially driven mass incarceration are but a few examples of the human cost of the war on drugs. But rather than closing their eyes to the continuing problem of drug abuse and drug trafficking, Uruguay's leaders have chosen responsible regulation of an existing reality.

Because the winds are changing, and they're starting to blow in that direction.

In recent years, debate and political will for an overhaul in drug policy has gained unprecedented momentum throughout the U.S., Latin America and elsewhere.

This tiny country has a history of remarkable political reforms and a strong human rights ethos.
Hannah Hetzer

In 2011, Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to "break the taboo" on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs and to "encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs," especially marijuana.

More recently, Presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia and Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala have joined these calls for reform. In May, the Organization of American States produced a report, commissioned by heads of state of the region, that included marijuana legalization as a likely policy alternative for the coming years.

In November 2012, the states of Colorado and Washington approved the legal regulation of marijuana. In August, the White House announced that the federal government will not interfere with state marijuana laws -- as long as a number of stipulations are adhered to, such as preventing distribution to minors.

By approving this measure, Uruguay has taken the broad regional discussion on alternatives to drug prohibition one step further, representing a concrete advance in line with growing anti-drug war rhetoric in Latin America and throughout the world.

Because Uruguay is used to doing exceptional things.

You might hear "Uruguay" and think of football, yerba mate, beef, tango or, now, marijuana. But this tiny country of just over 3 million people has a history of remarkable political reforms and a strong human rights ethos.

Just last year, Uruguay legalized same-sex marriage and abortion. It has long been at the forefront of progressive policies, being one of the first nations in the region to grant divorce rights for women in 1912, instituting the eight-hour workday in 1915 and including women's right to vote in its Constitution in 1917. It has never criminalized prostitution and has legally regulated it since 2002. In 2009, Uruguay granted adoption rights for same-sex couples and the legal right to choose one's own gender identity.

This also comes from a country where the church and state have been officially separated since 1917.

It's a country where the president, 78-year-old former Tupamaro guerrilla Mujica, lives an austere lifestyle after having spent 14 years as a political prisoner during Uruguay's dictatorship, 10 of them in solitary confinement. He donates 90% of his salary to charity, shuns the presidential palace and chooses instead to remain on his farm with his wife, also a former political prisoner, working to construct a more fair, more inclusive Uruguay.

The consensus is there. Marijuana prohibition hasn't worked, and it's time to try an innovative, more compassionate and smarter approach. Let's hope more countries soon follow Uruguay's brave lead.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hannah Hetzer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT