Thursday, April 4, 2013

Uruguay Launches Public Debate of Marijuana Legalization

In an attempt to build popular support for its controversial marijuana legalization initiative, the government of Uruguay is sponsoring a month-long series of presentations and panel discussions on the issue around the country before Congress takes up the debate next month. If passed, the bill could serve as a model for the growing number of Latin American countries which are considering breaking with the dominant U.S.-backed anti-drug strategy in the region.

The measure was first proposed last July by President Jose Mujica, who called for the state to assume direct control over the production and sale of marijuana. Since then, its language has changed considerably. In its current form (.pdf) it permits the creation of private cannabis growth and consumption cooperatives, known as “membership clubs,” as well as domestic cultivation of up to six cannabis plants. All cannabis cultivation would be authorized and monitored by a federal regulatory organization, the National Institute of Cannabis (INCA), and would not exceed 30 hectares nationwide. Possession for personal consumption of the drug would be capped at 40 grams per month.

While the ruling Frente Amplio coalition has enough votes in both legislative houses to pass the bill, Mujica instead opted to promote a campaign geared towards raising awareness of its benefits, organized by the executive office’s National Drug Council (JND). It begins today with a series of panel discussions on controlling and regulating the cannabis market, to be held in in four provinces. Similar events will be held in towns and communities across the country over the next 30 days.

It remains to be seen whether this sizeable awareness campaign can overcome public skepticism of the bill, however. A December poll showed that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Uruguayans are against marijuana legalization. Critics say its potential to reduce crime, one of the bill’s biggest selling points, is minimal. Marijuana possession, they point out, is already decriminalized in the country, and its small but growing organized crime problem is mostly related to the market for cocaine and crack.

But if the campaign is able to make a dent on public opinion, Congress will likely pass the bill sometime in July. Because the legalization initiative is so ambitious, its implementation would doubtlessly be closely studied by other governments in the region, where a historic wave of opposition to the U.S.-led “war on drugs” is underway. Depending on its success in Uruguay, the leaders of other Latin American countries may even propose similar legislation in the near future.  One potential candidate is Guatemalan President Otto Perez, who has already endorsed the legalization of marijuana in his own country, and is building a reputation as a leading voice for drug policy reform internationally.

News Briefs
  • At least 52 people have drowned or been killed over the past three days as a result of torrential rainfall and subsequent flooding in Argentina’s Buenos Aires province. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez visited the most flooded areas yesterday, and has declared a nationwide three-day period of mourning for the deaths. El Pais notes that Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, who is hoping to succeed Fernandez in 2015, has been criticized for his handling of the disaster.
  • On Monday, Bolivian President Evo Morales temporarily suspended his official duties due to health concerns, which Vice President Alvaro Garcia said were caused by “respiratory problems.” He resumed normal activity on Tuesday morning, meeting with a delegate of the Palestine Monetary Authority. According to Communications Minister Amanda Davila, Morales is now more concerned about his own health after the death of Hugo Chavez, which was caused by cancer-related respiratory failure.
  • Despite U.S. Southern Command head General John Kelly’s recent claim to the contrary, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon and armed forces chief Gen. Alejandro Navas have said they have no evidence of this.
  • Reuters reports that seven members of the Cuban National Ballet have defected while on tour in Mexico last month. According to Café Fuerte, six of the seven have crossed into the United States and are now in Miami.
  • The Venezuela Politics and Human Rights blog hosts an analysis of the electoral strategy of Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by Iñaki Sagarzazu. Sagarzazu points out that, based on polling data, Capriles’ only hope of winning lies in turning out large numbers of his own supporters while also convincing 20 percent of Chavistas and undeclared voters to vote for him. With the election in only ten days, this is a tall order.
  • A U.S. judge has rejected Chevron Corp’s request for a court to force the advocacy group Amazon Watch to turn over internal documents regarding a pollution case in Ecuador.
  • In an illustration of shifting trends in the hemispheric drug trade, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement William Brownfield has announced that a crackdown on drug trafficking in Central and South America is causing more drug shipments to pass through the Caribbean.
  • The L.A. Times reports that U.S. border officials are using a high-tech airborne radar system originally designed to track Taliban fighters in Afghanistan on the U.S.-Mexico border, and have found that the number of undocumented immigrants who elude authorities is higher than expected.
  • In spite of recent reports in the press highlighting the growth of a middle class in Mexico, a joint study conducted by UNICEF and Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONCEVAL) has found that 54 percent of Mexicans under the age of 18 live in poverty.
  • After online Mexican entertainment magazine DiarioBasta ran a column which accused domestic workers of being “ungrateful, whining, abusive thieves,” the country’s National Council to Prevent Discrimination has launched an investigation into the site, the AP reports.

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