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Jake Lessick Jake Lessick

Meet the Humble Maverick Who Legalized Marijuana in Uruguay

11 Substance

Late last year Uruguay legalized and regulated marijuana—becoming  the first sovereign nation in the world to do so. The country’s president, José Mujica, once led a Marxist guerrilla group. He now describes himself as a “humble peasant” and reportedly gives away 90% of his salary to low-income housing organizations, making him the world’s poorest president.

On his watch, since his election in 2009, same-sex marriage and—uniquely in Catholic South America—abortion have also been legalized as part of a progressive manifesto. “We’re a country of immigrants, anarchists and persecuted people from all over the world,” Mujica, 78, says in an interview with the Guardian. ”The result is the most secular country in Latin America, with a clear distinction between church and state. For my part, I’m president but I don’t believe in God.”

What he does believe in is legal pot. Later this year, once the first crops have been harvested, Uruguayans will be able to buy marijuana from pharmacies for $1 per gram, up to a limit of 40 grams each per month. They may also grow up to six plants each in community co-operatives or at home.

Despite majority opposition in Uruguay—62% to be exact—President Mujica, who has apparently never smoked weed himself, is adamant that legalization will improve Uruguayans’ health and security. He was motivated to pursue this policy by the violent drug trafficking that has afflicted neighboring countries, even though Uruguay itself has been less affected. ”There’s a saying among farming people here,” he says. “When you see your neighbor’s beard on fire, you drench your own.”

“This law is a trial. It doesn’t mean we have the final answer,” he continues. “The only thing I’m sure of is that the policy of combating drugs which has been enforced for decades is a crashing failure. I’m glad we’ve kicked over the ant hill.”