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.
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