Uruguay may have been criticized by the U.N. agency charged with overseeing illegal drugs, but the South American country is earning praise from The Economist.
The liberal British publication chose “modest yet bold, liberal and fun-loving” Uruguay as its country of the year for 2013, heaping praise on the government of José “Pepe” Mujica for legalizing the production and sale of marijuana. It is the first year the publication has awarded this title.
“This is a change so obviously sensible, squeezing out the crooks and allowing the authorities to concentrate on graver crimes, that no other country has made it,” The Economist quipped. “If others followed suit, and other narcotics were included, the damage such drugs wreak on the world would be drastically reduced.”
The publication also applauded Uruguay for legalizing gay marriage, a tend The Economist says has “increased the global sum of human happiness at no financial cost.”
The Uruguayan legislature voted this month to legalize the government-regulated sale of marijuana to registered nationals, marking a major departure from repressive drug war policies pioneered by the United States.
The move put Mujica, already internationally known for his humble lifestyle, into the international spotlight. Uruguay’s president lives on a small flower farm outside the capital of Montevideo instead of the presidential mansion, and drives his Volkwagen beetle to work. He donates 90 percent of his salary to charity.
The U.S. government commented little on Uruguay’s decision, though a State Department spokesperson pointed out that it would violate the 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs, an international treaty that Uruguay has signed.
Mujica bristled at criticism from the International Narcotics Control Board, a U.N. agency, whose president Raymond Yans said the marijuana reform violated international law and had been passed without consulting the United Nations.
“Tell this old guy not to lie,” Mujica told reporters, referring to Yans. “Any guy in the street can meet with me. Let him come to Uruguay and meet with me whenever he wants… He thinks that because he’s in an international position, he can tell whatever lie he wants.”
It remains to be seen whether the countries of North America will follow Uruguay’s example. The states of Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use last year, but the U.S. government continues to push prohibitionist policies outside its borders.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has called repeatedly for the legalization of weed this year as a way to weaken drug cartels, even saying he would grow it if it were legal. Drug war violence in Mexico has left more than 70,000 people dead since former President Felipe Calderón launched a frontal assault on the country’s cartels in 2006.
Nearly 89 percent of the drug seizures along the U.S.-Mexico border from 2005 to 2011 involved marijuana, according to an analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Cocaine trailed far behind, with just 7.4 percent.