As a general rule, Americans don’t give much thought to Uruguay, a small South American republic with a population of 3.3 million. But Uruguay has embarked on a new experiment with marijuana legalization that merits close attention. As Ken Parks of the Wall Street Journal reported late last month, new Uruguayan legislation will allow individuals to grow as much as 480 grams of marijuana for personal consumption, and marijuana cooperatives with no more than 45 members will be permitted to grow just over two plants per member. The government will also allow for limited commercial production, but Uruguayan lawmakers have made it clear that they don’t want a domestic marijuana market dominated by large for-profit firms.
Might the United States follow in Uruguay’s footsteps? Marijuana legalization seems inevitable—but we’d be wise to follow Uruguay’s lead and carefully regulate the kinds of legal marijuana operations that will follow.
Marijuana advocates have successfully pressed for the legalization of the medicinal use of marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia since 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215. And efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, as in Uruguay’s new legislation, are gaining ground. In November, three states — Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — had marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot, two of which passed. Though Oregon voters chose not to legalize marijuana last fall, they will likely get another chance to do so in 2014. Alaska and Arizona could be the next states to follow suit.
Support for marijuana legalization isn’t just growing in libertarian-minded western states. In April, the Pew Research Center found that a narrow 52 percent majority of Americans support marijuana legalization. This represents an impressive increase since 2002, when only 32 percent supported legalization. Support among adults born after 1981 has reached 65 percent, and as this cohort comes to represent a larger share of the electorate, it is easy to imagine that the pressure to legalize marijuana will grow. And while there remains a partisan divide over marijuana legalization, with fewer Republicans in favor of legalization (37 percent) than Democrats (59 percent), a majority of Republicans (57 percent) and Democrats (59 percent) believe that the federal government should not enforce federal marijuana laws in states that permit its use.
But the deeper shift is not so much political as cultural. Pew has found that the stigma against marijuana use is quickly evaporating. In 2006, 50 percent of Americans maintained that smoking marijuana was “morally wrong,” a share that has fallen to 32 percent as of 2013. Not surprisingly, marijuana use has increased as the stigma against it has faded. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reports that the annual prevalence of cannabis use has increased from 10 percent of the general population (persons 15-64 years of age) in 2007 to 14.1 percent in 2010. By way of comparison, the annual prevalence of cannabis use is less than half as high in Uruguay. Marijuana is no longer seen as a drug for people on society’s fringes, or the exclusive preserve of hippies and hip-hop devotees. It is used by an impressively wide range of Americans, many of whom use it for banal purposes like reducing stress.