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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT