MONTEVIDEO – Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica placed his country in the global drug-policy spotlight when he presented a bill earlier this year seeking to decriminalize marijuana.
Many observers – including Nobel Prize winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru – pointed to the move as an example of what countries can do to prevent themselves from becoming “narco-states.”
How things look from the outside, however, is one thing. How the decriminalization push is playing out within Uruguay is quite another. One thing Mujica apparently didn’t factor into account was his predecessor, former President Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010), who – although he hasn’t said so explicitly – has begun taking concrete steps to return to the presidency. Both Vázquez and Mujica are members of the left-wing Broad Front political party.
Vázquez doesn’t talk very often. Unlike Mujica, the ex-president keeps his public appearances to a minimum. But when he does decide to voice an opinion, his words can be like political missiles. Comments he made this past week to a group of high school students in the southwestern city of Colonia were a case in point.
“You shouldn’t use marijuana. Simply and plainly, you shouldn’t use it,” he told the students. “There are some countries that liberalized marijuana use decades ago. Now they’re having to rewind, because the experiences weren’t good.”
Vázquez went on to say that: “If legalizing marijuana helps keep people from using other drugs, then great. But that has yet to be demonstrated. There’s no such thing as a light psychotropic drug. They all cause damage.”
Technically speaking, Vázquez didn’t go to Colonia as a politician, but rather as an oncologist. The visit was part of a tour the medically trained ex-president embarked on to promote “Crónica de un mal amigo” (Chronicle of a Bad Friend), a book he wrote on cancer.
Regardless, for the Mujica administration – which is currently organizing a series of debates to drum up support for the legalization bill – Vázquez’s words were like a bucket of cold water. Mujica submitted the legislation to Congress this past August. The goal of the bill, according to its government backers, is to take drug dealers out of the equation and to treat marijuana users not as criminals, but as people with an illness.