Uruguay’s legal marijuana revolution is played out

With an economy smaller than Myanmar’s and the population of Connecticut, Uruguay is easy to overlook. Jose Pepe Mujica set out to change all that, and all it took was a bit of smoke.

Elected president in 2009, the former Marxist guerrilla’s policy innovations have gone well beyond decriminalizing marijuana (legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, for example), but by nationalizing the cultivation, sale and consumption of pot, Mujica took the command and control economy to giddy new heights and put this nub of a country below the bulge in South America on the world map. Suddenly, everyone from eggheads to dopeheads was flying down to Montevideo for a closer look at the Mujica revolution, including one enthusiastic reporter who lit up during an interview with the Uruguayan leader.

Now comes the counterrevolution. Uruguayans won’t choose the term-limited Mujica’s successor until Oct. 26, but the race for the presidency in Latin America’s most charmed country already has its new rock star: Luis Lacalle Pou, a conservative, 41-year-old lawyer who has soared in good part on his promise to roll back the dope law.

With his long locks and surfer vibe, Lacalle Pou would blend well with the Mujica generation. As it happens, he is the scion of a former president, Luis Lacalle, and heir to the ultra-traditional National Party, known as Blancos, with a conservative agenda and a predator’s instinct.

Although Mujica is personally popular – his 2013 speech at the United Nations General Assembly drew more than 475,000 hits on YouTube – his agenda is losing its charm. Not least the marijuana law, which the governing Broad Front majority muscled through the legislature. They forgot one detail: The Uruguayans. A recent survey showed that less than three in 10 voters support the marijuana law and some 62 percent want it struck down.

Lacalle Pou has tapped into the angst with a proposal to partially repeal the dope law. Although the political hard right wants to ditch it entirely, the Blancos salvage parts (allowing home cultivation, for example) but rule out sales in pharmacies and drop the plan to register consumers.

That’s not the only thing awry in Uruguay. Poverty is low, but the economy is growing at an uninspired 2 percent annual rate and the tight labor market has pushed inflation above 8 percent. Teachers walked off the job yesterday in a 24-hour general strike over wages and “authoritarian punishment.”

A crime wave also hasn’t helped, fed by the growing presence of drug gangs and the country’s huge number of firearms. (With 32 civilian firearms per 100 inhabitants, Uruguay ranks 9th of 170 countries in gun-ownership.) It was the spiking drug-related violence that inspired Mujica to decriminalize marijuana, to “steal the market from bandits,” he said. Now it’s one of the reasons why Uruguayans are turning on his government.

As recently as February, polls showed former president Tabare Vasquez, the 74-year-old candidate backed by Mujica’s coalition, coasting to a first-round victory on his veteran’s resume. His pitch: Why bet on the “under-20” soccer team instead of the “experienced squad?” Since then, however, Vazquez has dropped 9 points in the polls, while Lacalle has gained 14. In a simulated runoff on Aug. 29, the two were virtually tied.

Credit goes to Lacalle Pou’s slick campaign, which eschews attack ads for a nondenominational, up-with-Uruguay message and production values fit for the multiplex. With its fast-paced cuts and easy-listening pro-democracy riff, his signature spot, “We Are Today, We Are Now,” recalls Pablo Larrain’s recent feature film, “No,” about the young admen who enchanted Chile with their campaign to boost the 1988 referendum to remove the dictator, Augusto Pinochet.

Spin and foot-tapping jingles aren’t enough to win an election. Still, Lacalle Pou has struck a chord in a nation that applauded social reforms, but never actually inhaled, and now, apparently, wants to move on.

Margolis is Brazil bureau chief for Vocativ.