MONTEVIDEO The United States and Europe need a new strategy in the war on drugs and should look at alternatives such as the regulated sale of marijuana, says Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, whose country recently legalized the production and sale of cannabis.
In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, the 78-year-old former left-wing guerrilla said the world's largest economies, which are the biggest markets for illegal narcotics, need to tackle drug trafficking using tools other than prohibition.
"The industrial societies are the ones that have to change," he said. "For a small country, it's possible to experiment with this, but it's also very possible for a developed country because of the resources it has."
In December, Uruguay's parliament approved a bill to legalize and regulate the sale and production of marijuana.
The move is being closely watched by countries around the world, some of which are seeking to change anti-drug policies that are widely seen as having failed.
"There are big markets, they have great buying power, and that is a big economic attraction. Until things change there, it will be very difficult to change elsewhere," said Mujica from his home on the outskirts of Uruguay's capital, Montevideo, where he lives in a simple cottage with his wife and dogs.
Mujica pointed to changing laws in other places, including those of U.S. states that have taken steps to decriminalize and even legalize marijuana use, as evidence of an "undeniable evolution" in attitudes.
Washington and Colorado states recently legalized the sale of cannabis under license, although federal law in the United States has not changed.
"Any North American state is more important than Uruguay, in dimensions, in its economic force," he said. "But it's still a bit like a lady embarrassed to admit her natural sins and lying to herself. What we are doing is much more open."
Uruguay's new marijuana laws are scheduled to take effect in April. Citizens will be allowed to grow up to six plants a year in their homes and will be able to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) a month at pharmacies licensed by the state.
The country is not interested in promoting a culture of cannabis tourism, such as that seen in the coffee shops of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, which has a no-penalization policy. To try to prevent such tourism, marijuana will be available only to Uruguayan residents who are registered on a confidential database.
Mujica conceded that illicit sales are likely to continue nonetheless.
"The consumer will be able to go to the black market. It is bound to keep on existing, but the attack on the black market will be via the market itself, it will affect it," he said.
Ultimately, what Uruguay is doing is an experiment with no guarantees, he said - but one that someone had to try.
"We are trying to invent a path, picking up experiences as we go. There are people who say that you can't experiment. ... That condemns you to failure."
(Reporting by Felipe Llambias and Malena Castaldi, Writing by Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Kieran Murray and Douglas Royalty)