On a Sunday morning in March 2015, José Mujica, the president of Uruguay, left his farm in Rincón del Cerro, on the outskirts of Montevideo, for his office in the capital. That day, he was scheduled to hand over power to his successor, Tabaré Vázquez, a leader of the leftist Frente Amplio coalition. Vázquez had also been Mujica’s predecessor in government. As Mujica travelled the nineteen kilometres in his old Volkswagen Beetle, many Uruguayans saluted his passage.
After five years in the presidency, the former guerrilla was leaving office with an approval rating of 65 percent. His administration would be remembered for its social reforms—decriminalising abortion, authorising same-sex marriage and making Uruguay the first country in the world to legalise the cultivation and sale of cannabis, a peaceful initiative in a continent marked by violence in its fight against drug trafficking.
According to the latest report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, cannabis is the most consumed illegal drug in the world, with 190 million people using it. It is one of the oldest cultivated crops, having been used as a fibre twelve thousand years ago. The earliest evidence of its recreational and religious use dates back to the third millennium BCE. It was endemic to Central and South Asia, but soon spread through trade networks in Europe and Africa, and later, travelled with Spanish colonists to the Americas.
The systematic criminalisation of cannabis production and consumption began in the nineteenth century, as European powers colonised regions where recreational use of the drug was prevalent among natives. The United States established its first limitations on the sale of cannabis in 1906. In 1961, US hegemony over the post-war world led to the imposition of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. In addition to opium and coca—and their derivatives—the convention banned synthetic drugs and, for the first time, cannabis. An international regime of criminal sanctions was created to restrict the production, supply and use of over a hundred substances, classified in four lists according to their degree of danger to health. A decade later, the US president Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” and pointed to the abuse of narcotics as “public enemy number one.” The drug war continues today, and has given rise to a militarisation of the police and a policy of mass incarceration in the United States.
Latin America is a major drug producer—Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are the world’s largest producers of coca and its derivatives, while Mexico and Paraguay are the leading producers of cannabis in the Americas. For fifty years, drug policy in Latin American countries has been dictated by the United States, which has militarised the problem with catastrophic human costs in Mexico and Colombia. Further, it has failed to reduce the production, trafficking and consumption of narcotics. Throughout the continent, people are questioning the effectiveness of this strategy, and spearheading alternate drug policies that reduces addiction and confronts organised crime.