The marijuana legalization experiments underway in Washington state, Colorado and Uruguay have prompted or accelerated discussion about changing pot laws in many nations, and activists say momentum is building in advance of a special United Nations convention on drugs scheduled for 2016. Here's a look at how some countries are rethinking their approach to marijuana.
Personal possession of controlled substances has been decriminalized, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in 2009 that found imposing jail time for small amounts of drugs was a violation of Argentina's constitution, which protects private actions that don't harm others. Lawmakers have been working to amend the law since then, with proposals ranging from simple decriminalization in accordance with the ruling to a complete overhaul of the country's drug laws. In December, Father Juan Carlos Molina, a Catholic priest newly appointed as the nation's drug czar, said Argentina deserves a debate about whether to follow Uruguay in regulating marijuana.
Brazil doesn't punish personal drug use, but trafficking or transporting small amounts of controlled substances is a criminal offense, punishable by drug abuse education or community service. Some advocates worry the law isn't clear about how much constitutes personal possession, and that can leave it up to a judge's discretion about whether someone should be punished. In November, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso joined former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in calling for the decriminalization of all drugs and allowing countries to experiment with drug regulation.
President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, a hard-hit cocaine transit country, took the floor at the U.N. last fall to join a growing chorus of nations calling the drug war a failed strategy. He announced that his country would study different approaches and praised the "visionary" experiments in Washington and Colorado — as well as U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to let them go forward. Currently, prison terms of four months to two years can be imposed for the possession of drugs for personal use.
The island nation is a primary source of marijuana in the Caribbean. Possession remains illegal and can result in mandated treatment or rehabilitation, though usually the defendant pays a small fine and is not incarcerated. Nevertheless, many young men wind up with criminal records that affect their future employment options, and recent changes in the U.S. and Uruguay have given momentum to activists who hope to see marijuana decriminalization approved soon.
In Mexico, where tens of thousands have been killed in drug war violence in the past seven years, there is no general push to legalize or regulate marijuana for recreational use. But in more liberal Mexico City, a metropolis of 8 million, lawmakers have introduced a measure to allow stores to sell up to 5 grams of pot. The plan has the mayor's support but could set up a fight with the federal government. Small amounts of marijuana and other drugs have been decriminalized in Mexico since 2009.
Morocco is one of the world's leading hashish producers, and nearly all of it makes its way into Europe. Cannabis was legal to grow as late as the 1950s by order of the king. Two leading political parties want to re-legalize its cultivation for medical and industrial uses, with the goal of helping small farmers who survive on the crop but live at the mercy of drug lords and police attempts to eradicate it. There is little chance the conservative nation will legalize it for recreational use any time soon.
The Netherlands has long had some of the most liberal cannabis laws. Hoping to keep pot users away from dealers of harder drugs, the country in the late 1970s began allowing "coffee shops" to sell marijuana, which remains technically illegal. Since 2012 the federal government has clamped down, briefly requiring people to obtain a "weed pass" to buy cannabis and banning sales to tourists. Some cities, including Amsterdam, have declined to ban sales to tourists, however, and mayors of 35 cities have banded together to call for the legalization of marijuana growing.
Long the drug war crusader, the U.S. was the driving force behind the 1961 treaty that formed the basis of international narcotics control. For decades the U.S. has required other nations to cooperate in the drug war or risk losing foreign aid, even as some Latin American countries ravaged by drug war violence criticized America for failing to curb its appetite for cocaine, marijuana and other substances. Since 1996, nearly half the states have allowed medical use of marijuana despite federal laws banning it, and some states are considering following the lead of Washington state and Colorado in legalizing recreational use.
In December, Uruguay became the first nation to approve marijuana legalization and regulation. President Jose Mujica said his goal is to drive drug traffickers out of the dope business and reduce consumption by creating a safe, legal and transparent environment in which the state closely monitors every aspect of marijuana use. By April, Uruguay is expected to have written the fine print on its regulations. Once registered and licensed, any Uruguayan adult will be allowed to choose one of three options: grow plants at home, or join a pot-growing club, or buy marijuana cigarettes from pharmacies.