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How the Evergreen state helped Uruguay legalize marijuana

Ken Kesey's bus at Seattle's Hempfest
Ken Kesey's bus at Seattle's Hempfest
Ken Kesey’s bus at Seattle’s Hempfest

Earlier this week, politicians in Uruguay voted to make the South American nation the first in the world to legalize marijuana – a bold move aimed at regulating the use of pot and disrupting the criminal drug trade.

But they might not have had it not been for a little help from Washington state, in the form of Alison Holcomb, a civil rights attorney in Seattle who led the successful citizen’s initiative here in the (appropriately named) Evergreen state that de-criminalized recreational use of pot.

Here in the U.S., where our policymakers tend to be as bold as lukewarm soup, it is largely the public (fed up with the failed War on Drugs, surveys say) that has been pushing for our political leaders to adopt a more rationale alternative to dealing with drug use.

In Uruguay, it was the politicians pushing the public. President José Mujica had decided that legalizing marijuana would reduce the harm, and the violence, caused by the drug cartels.

“But a poll done in 2012 showed that 64 percent of Uruguayans were opposed to the idea,” said Holcomb, who works for the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. As I noted earlier at this year’s colorful, sickly sweet-smelling August gathering of Seattle Hempfest, Washington state’s legalization of pot continues to have global implications.

Before Uruguay’s vote, Holcomb and others traveled multiple times to Uruguay to offer advice.

Alison Holcomb
Alison Holcomb

“President Mujica said they needed to do a better job ef explaining what they were trying to accomplish,” said Holcomb, who (I always get flack for saying this, but what the heck) does not use marijuana. “This is not about promoting or celebrating the use of marijuna; it’s about improving public safety and finding a better way to take this out of the hands of criminals.”

Few suffer from the illegal drug trade as much as do many Latin American communities. Despite the massive expense and efforts of the 40-year U.S.-led military and law enforcement approach to curbing the drug trade, the use of drugs remains as high as ever and the violence associated with the illegal drug trade has made some countries and regions in Latin America as dangerous as a war zone.

Citing a report from the Organization of American States, Mujica said after the vote to legalize marijuana:

“For every death that comes from an overdose … there are about 100 deaths produced by the troubles and murders of drug trafficking,” he said. “That means that the worst social effects suffered are not from the drug itself, but from drug trafficking.”

He said the U.S.-led law enforcement approach to curbing drug use has been costly, ineffective, violent and has had the unanticipated effect of only making the illegal drug trade even more profitable. But it took some doing to convince skeptical Uruguayans to take on this grand social experiment.

“We were asked by the government and civil society groups to help them re-frame the issue to the public,” Holcomb said. She made multiple trips to Uruguay while also working on the Washington state effort, which featured many leaders in local law enforcement like Seattle’s former US attorney John McKay speaking out in favor of legalization:

They discovered that approach wouldn’t work in Uruguay, she said, due to the, uh, low credibility law enforcement already has there with the public. So Holcomb and her colleagues worked with government officials, non-profit and educational organizations to help craft television ads, community forums, online advertisements and other initiatives aimed at providing the public with the rationale for de-criminalizing marijuana.

It succeeded, Holcomb said, because people everywhere can see that the prohibitionist approach has failed – and is often making things worse.

“What Uruguay has done is demonstrate to other Latin American countries, and to the rest of the world, that there is a better alternative than continuing to follow the U.S. drug policy approach,” Holcomb said. “This is just the beginning.”

Seattle Hempfest 2013
Seattle Hempfest 2013

About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.