In a surprise that comes just days after an historic vote by Uruguay's lower house to legalize marijuana, the country's ex-president Tabare Vasquez said Uruguay should now consider ways "to regulate" the cocaine market.
Vasquez, who is positioning himself to run for president again next year and has a 62 percent approval rating, said in a television interview that the key question is education, not consumption. (See interview below)
"I think (legalizing cocaine) is not necessarily making it easier to consume it," he said. "We have to educate (the population) so they don't consume it. But more than making it easier, we need to regulate the consumption of drugs."
He later linked the proposal to his administration's successful anti-smoking campaign in the mid-2000s, and noted the vast number of deaths linked to smoking (an estimated five million per year) far outnumbers deaths linked to psychoactive drugs (closer to 200,000 per year).
In early August, Uruguay's lower house passed a measure to legalize the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana. The bill soon goes to the senate, where it is expected to pass easily. Once it passes the senate, it is signed into law, which will make the country the first in the world to completely legalize the drug.
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Vasquez's pronouncement is surprising on various levels. Vasquez had previously been coy about his position concerning the legalization of marijuana, and few expected him to come out so clearly in favor of the measure, much less talk openly about cocaine in the process.
The marijuana bill did not have popular support (63 percent were against it in the polls leading up to the house vote), so Vasquez's position on cocaine and marijuana may hurt him in the campaign.
To be sure, legalizing marijuana has been a monumental task for the proponents of the measure. It took a sophisticated campaign that included YouTube videos (see below) to familiarize Uruguayans with the issue and win over Vasquez's own party, which barely managed to push it through the lower house.
Finally, cocaine is not marijuana and there is little consensus, even in the pro-marijuana camps, about how "to regulate" its consumption.
Still, Vasquez is one of many leaders in the region who is trying to turn the drug debate from a security question into a health question. He knows health issues. He is himself a doctor and is quick to point out that his efforts are about regulating and legalizing the consumption of the now illicit drugs.
"We need to educate (youth) to prevent (consumption)," he said.