Uruguay president seeks drug legalization

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – This small, quiet, slow-moving nation doesn’t make much news. That’s part of being a small, quiet, slow-moving nation. But Jorge Batlle has figured out a way to get headlines. He has become the first head of state in the region, and one of the few anywhere, to call for the decriminalization of illicit drugs. Mr. Batlle, a blunt free-market reformer, questions the costs and effectiveness of a drug war whose primary theater of battle is Latin America.

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – This small, quiet, slow-moving nation doesn’t make much news. That’s part of being a small, quiet, slow-moving nation.

But Jorge Batlle has figured out a way to get headlines. He has become the first head of state in the region, and one of the few anywhere, to call for the decriminalization of illicit drugs. Mr. Batlle, a blunt free-market reformer, questions the costs and effectiveness of a drug war whose primary theater of battle is Latin America.

“During the past 30 years this has grown, grown, grown and grown, every day more problems, every day more violence, every day more militarization,” the 73-year-old president told a radio audience recently. “This has not gotten people off drugs.

“And what’s more, if you remove the economic incentive of the [business] it loses strength, it loses size, it loses people who participate.”

If this were Colombia, Mexico or another nation locked in mortal combat with the cartels, the reaction would be fast and furious. The president would be pilloried by rivals and the security forces. The U.S. Embassy would no doubt express concern.

But this is Uruguay. The debate over Mr. Batlle’s endorsement of legalization has been measured and civilized. The drug problem here is growing but not monstrous, so some Uruguayans haven’t paid much attention. And because the president insists that his “philosophical initiative” will not affect anti-drug enforcement here, U.S. diplomats have kept quiet.

Nonetheless, a line has been crossed. Although Mr. Batlle’s voice may be small and symbolic, the verve with which he speaks out on the issue at regional meetings of presidents and journalists probably will contribute to a growing debate. A Latin American leader has broken ranks with the hard-line anti-drug campaign led by the United States.

These days, the term “drug war” is more appropriate than ever. Bolivian troops are approaching their goal of eradicating the coca crop used in cocaine production from a key jungle area – at the cost of deadly riots and economic hardship. Plan Colombia, the high-stakes, U.S.-funded attack on the cocaine trade linked to Colombian guerrillas, is cranking into gear.

The plan makes the leaders of Brazil, Ecuador and other nations nervous. They fear that violence, anarchy and displaced drug traffickers from Colombia will spread through the region.

Mr. Batlle has expressed similar misgivings. He suggests that it would make more sense to decriminalize drugs and deprive narco-guerrillas of a multibillion-dollar business.

By espousing a radical change of direction, the Uruguayan president joins an assortment of public figures in favor of legalization, including billionaire philanthropist George Soros, former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke and University of Chicago economist Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize winner.

Author: Los Angeles Times

News Service: Los Angeles Times

URL: http://www.dallasnews.com/world/273898_uruguay_29int..html