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Is Uruguay's Push To Legalize Pot About To Go Up In Smoke?

Pro-legalization rally in Uruguay
Pro-legalization rally in Uruguay
Antonio Ladra

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.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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