Uruguay just rolled out the rules and regulations for its legal marijuana market, and at a suggested retail price of 87 cents a gram, a lot of stoners are likely wishing they were born in the South American nation. Unlike recreational legalization measures in the US, legalization in Uruguay only makes weed available to citizens, and its major selling point to the public is not an economic one. By legalizing, Uruguay hopes to steal the weed market away from dangerous cartels that have thrived on the illegal trade. As President Jose Mujica has said, "If we legalize it, we think that we will spoil the market (for drug traffickers) because we are going to sell it for cheaper than it is sold on the black market.”
The effect that legalization in the US has had on Mexican cartels supports this logic. With legal weed available, the demand for illegally trafficked weed is falling, the price is dropping, and Mexican weed farmers are giving up on it as a cash crop, according to the Washington Post. This signals coming success for Uruguay’s legalization program, but in the US where it is actually having a positive effect in reducing criminal activity, the authorities are far less inclined to recognize it.
The DEA continues to oppose legalizing or even rescheduling marijuana, citing arcane, sensational arguments that were first synthesized in the era of reefer madness. DEA administrator Michele Leonhart has repeatedly testified to congress that the old policies of the war on drugs must continue, even though they have been deemed a failure by several authorities. Most recently, a group of Nobel-prize-winning economists quantified the damage of the global war on drugs, describing a 300-billion-dollar black market fostered by the blind enforcement approach.
A new VICE News report suggests that the DEA’s continued drive against legal pot is motivated by more than just an ill-informed “drugs are bad” ideology. The DEA has had an ongoing relationship with the Sinaloa cartel, one of Mexico’s most dominant trafficking outfits, and have offered them reprieve from investigation and prosecution in order to obtain information on other cartels. The report quotes a former federal agent saying, “The DEA doesn’t want the drug war to end. If it ends, they don’t get their toys and their budgets. Once it ends, they aren’t going to have the kind of influence in foreign government.” This points to a far more malignant incentive for the DEA to keep weed illegal in the US.
The Obama administration continually refers to state-level legalization in Colorado and Washington as an experiment, implying that they’re waiting to see if it’s economically viable and legally just before making federal changes that support legalization. With recreational sales in Colorado only four months in, the federal government can justify waiting for further evidence before deeming legal marijuana an economic success. But if the drug war is a categorical failure that has upheld the criminal elements of the drug trade, why must we wait for sales numbers before our federal government makes meaningful changes to their approach to drug enforcement?
The Obama administration has merely said that they will lay off of the marijuana industry in legalized states, but it’s own drug agency continues to express their contempt for any restriction on their ability to continue their war, and is fully within its rights to do so. The federal government’s lip service to support legalization doesn’t end with enforcement. Despite the US Justice Department’s guidelines for banks to safely accept money from legal marijuana businesses, banks technically remain under threat of federal prosecution for holding that money and no financial easement has actually taken place. Seeing that it could be a while before the federal government actually makes good on its claim, Colorado recently approved its own weed banking system to address the issue.
If the US government really is supportive of the legalization experiment, and has more evidence than they need to make changes to federal law that allow it to flourish further, then why do legal marijuana businesses continue to operate with the fear that they could be shut down by a federal agency at any moment, and that their income might have to sit in stacks of cash in a basement safe instead of in a bank? There’s a tiny country in South America that might have to show us how it’s done before we get it right.