Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
By this time next week, the world will get a glimpse of what it means when a whole country fully legalizes the consumption of marijuana by consenting adults.
The nation of Uruguay will take a step that no other nation has yet dared thanks to the global hegemony of the drug war, upheld and enforced by the United States and its most powerful allies.
Uruguay's legalization bill will establish the government as the monopoly seller of marijuana, and undercut the black market by offering state-grown weed for just $1 a gram. Registered users will also be allowed to grow up to six plants of their own, or join clubs of up to 45 members who can produce 99 plants at once.
Children under age 18 may not buy the drug under Uruguay's proposed law. Similarly, driving under the influence is strictly forbidden, and so is advertising marijuana. Most importantly, only citizens of Uruguay may purchase legalized weed, which officials hope will tamp down on the kind of drug tourism that Colorado and Washington are becoming known for. In an effort to aid international drug control officials, the country also plans to produce a very specific genetic strain of marijuana that scientists can easily identify.
Speaking to a Brazilian newspaper over the weekend, President José Mujica called upon fellow world leaders to help Uruguay break the grip of global prohibition and finally show that the drug war is much more harmful than the drugs themselves.
"We ask the world to help us create this experience," he reportedly said. "It will allow us to adopt a socio-political experiment to address the serious problem of drug trafficking... the effect of the drug traffic is worse than the drug."
Though Uruguay stands alone in this national project, there are clear signs that the global consensus on the drug war is crumbling from within.
Legalizing marijuana represents a serious break with the United Nations' 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which Uruguay ratified. However, it is unclear whether the U.N. has the will to do anything about Uruguay forsaking that treaty.
A leaked document given to The Guardian recently shows that the U.N. is facing a growing divide on drug control strategies, with countries like Ecuador and Venezuela favoring policies that "look beyond prohibition." Switzerland, the European Union and Norway are also included in the dissenters, hoping that the U.N. would consider treating drug addiction more like a medical problem and less like a criminal one.
Closer to America's doorstep, former Mexican President Vicente Fox has been agitating for years about his country's movement to embrace drug reform, and even made a personal appearance at a Washington product launch party for a new brand of connoisseur cannabis produced by Diego Pellicer Inc., a company formed by a former Microsoft executive.
Fox suggested that Mexico's movement toward legalization would be rapidly accelerated if California makes the leap first. "Once California gets into this, Mexico is going to be obligated to speed up its decision process," he said.
The reason for Mexico's likely push to legalize after California is simple: Partial legalization in the states could intensify the cartel wars beyond all hope of reconciliation. As marijuana profits dwindle, the entrenched organizations upholding the black market will be left to battle each other for what remains.
The solution, it seems, was even on U.S. Senator John McCain's lips recently, when he told a crowd in Arizona that Mexico's bloody drug war "is our responsibility."
"We're creating a demand for drugs in this country and when there's a demand, there's going to be a supply," he said. "Maybe we should legalize it. We are certainly moving that way so far as marijuana is concerned, but I will respect the will of the people."
Respecting the will of the people, even for McCain, is a far cry from where most American politicians are today. Even President Barack Obama, whose administration has taken a largely hands-off approach to drug reform in Colorado and Washington, says that legalization is not the answer.
However, last October the Gallup polling firm found for the first time ever that a majority of Americans believe legalization is in fact the answer. A full 58 percent said that marijuana should be legalized; nearly a super majority.
Gallup added: "A sizable percentage of Americans (38%) this year admitted to having tried the drug, which may be a contributing factor to greater acceptance." The only demographics with majorities that believe possessing the drug should remain a criminal offense are individuals over age 65 and Republicans; two groups that tend to go hand-in-hand.
"With Americans' support for legalization quadrupling since 1969, and localities on the East Coast such as Portland, Maine, considering a symbolic referendum to legalize marijuana, it is clear that interest in this drug and these issues will remain elevated in the foreseeable future," Gallup concluded.
"Last year, Colorado and Washington; this year, Uruguay; and next year, Oregon and hopefully more states as well," Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a media advisory issued Sunday. "We still have a long way to go but who would have believed, just five years ago, that legalizing marijuana would have become a mainstream political reality both in the United States and abroad?!"
Photo: Flickr user Oregon Department of Transportation, creative commons licensed.