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How Uruguay Legalized Marijuana Dealing

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Late Tuesday night, a small Latin American country voted to become the first in the world to legalize the sale and distribution of marijuana.

Just as twin referendums in Colorado and Washington last year signaled the beginning of a state-based movement to legalize weed in the U.S., drug reform activists hope Uruguay's decision will spur other countries to do the same.

"I think it's a fatal blow to the already dying war on drugs," said Hannah Hetzer, policy manager for the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance. "If they do it right, other countries will follow their lead and we'll see a post-marijuana prohibition world."

Speaking to HuffPost from the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo -- where she's been living since February to lobby for the legalization law -- Hetzer broke down how the bill passed, and what it means for efforts to legalize marijuana elsewhere.

The campaigners in Uruguay had the help of a friendly leader.

If the measure to legalize marijuana sales had been put to a referendum, instead of going through Uruguay's legislature, it might never have passed.

According to one polling firm, 58 percent of Uruguayans were against the proposal. But in Latin America, as opposed to the U.S. -- where the public has taken the lead -- it's the politicians who seem to be most inclined toward ending prohibition. Four years ago ex-presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil came out for decriminalization.

In Uruguay, it was 78-year-old President José "Pepe" Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla who spent 14 years in prison, many of them in solitary confinement, before being granted amnesty and freed. Since taking office in 2010, he's successfully pushed Uruguay to legalize abortion and same-sex marriage. Marijuana was just the latest in a string of socially liberal measures to which he has attached his name.

“Someone has to start revealing the taboos with regards to marijuana in Latin America. There are so many taboos to break. Uruguay, because it is a small country, can do it," Mujica said in a February interview. "Maybe I am wrong about this but if I am, give me another solution because prohibitionist policy failed and we have been repressing for 50 years and look at how Mexico is."

Despite his strong pro-legalization stance, Mujica has also said he's never in his life tried a joint.

"But I have to rejuvenate my neurons and realize what kind of life young people are living," he told an interviewer. "[Drug] consumption is right there around the corner."

The United States was benignly indifferent.

The U.S. has spent billions of dollars to put a crimp on the production end of drug trade, and it has steadfastly pressured Latin American leaders not to consider any sort of drug liberalization. But this year in Uruguay, Hetzer said, there's been nary a peep from the U.S. embassy about the marijuana law.

That may be because of domestic U.S. politics. Back in 2012, when Guatemala's president proposed legalizing drugs, the U.S. embassy there "swiftly responded" with a stern statement warning about the "major public health and safety threat" from drugs.

But then Colorado and Washington legalized pot, making any American admonitions against doing the same sound a little hollow, not to say hypocritical. In a September speech at the U.N., Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina commended, perhaps a little bit mischievously, "the visionary decision of the citizens of the States of Colorado and Washington."

The U.S. may also have seen little threat from legalization in Uruguay. The country is far away from the front lines of the war on drugs in places like Mexico or Central America, at most a bit player in international trafficking.

Advocates took advice from Colorado and Washington -- but tailored their message to a local audience.

Hetzer says marijuana reformers involved in the successful referendum flew down from those states to share what worked for them. But when the Uruguayans tried using American messages -- like the high economic cost of policing the drug trade -- they didn't go over so well. Nobody jails as many people as America does.

So instead the campaign in Uruguay took on a more local flavor, focusing on cutting the legs out from under criminal drug organizations by regulating the marijuana trade.

There was some hesitancy from certain quarters over American organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance and George Soros' Open Society Foundation getting involved in the legalization effort, Hetzer said. Soros' group was a major donor to the campaign, which led to conspiracy theories from the country's main opposition party.

But, Hetzer said, "as time goes on and more people realize this is a Uruguayan initiative by Uruguayans for Uruguayans … Mujica is not really known as the type who would bow down to U.S. pressures. There's not a lot that any U.S. organization could do to bend his arm."

Perhaps most importantly, Uruguay already had a long history of legalized marijuana use.

Using the drug was already legal -- it's just selling weed, especially in large quantities, that runs afoul of the law.

"This is an adjustment to fix a contradiction in Uruguayan law where use is legal but access isn't," Hetzer said. So in that sense, the country's giant leap is more of a baby step. The consumer's relationship with weed won't change much, but the country will collect taxes when it is legally sold in places like pharmacies. But it also means that Uruguay's previous experiment with marijuana liberalization paved the way for full legalization of marijuana sales. That incremental approach is why Hetzer, and others, hope the country will signal a shift across the continent and then the world.

"There's so much interest in what Uruguay is doing, because there's so much awareness that our current approach isn't working," Hetzer said. "If Uruguay does this well, which I'm confident it will, there will be other countries that follow suit soon."

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