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16-Ounce Cokes and 40 Joints a Month: When Government Dictates to Consumers

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José Mujica

José Mujica is the Uruguayan Bloomberg.

Like the mayor of New York, the president of Uruguay is a social engineer, convinced to the core that he knows best by getting citizens to do the right thing.

Bloomberg and Mujica even have a mutual fan club going. Bloomberg donated $500,000 and called the Uruguayan leader nearly two years ago to urge him on in support of the country’s labeling law that requires 80 percent of the front and back of cigarette packages to be covered with health warnings, an action that provoked the ire of Philip Morris International.

Recently both Bloomberg and Mujica have upped their game: Bloomberg gave Coca-Cola and other soft-drink companies spasms when he proposed a 16-ounce size limit on the sugary beverages in restaurants, movie theaters and the like. (Best random quote on Bloombergian food policing: “He’s of the generation of Jewish men who feel that if they didn’t become a doctor they are a failure. Now he’s trying to become a doctor.”—Fran Lebowitz in The New Yorker.)

Mujica has arguably done his friend Mike one better. He proposed earlier this week to legalize marijuana to stopper drug-related violence in his little country whose population is less than half that of New York City's. Making pot more readily available would, in theory, quell demand for harder stuff like cocaine base, an intermediate in the production of the drug.

Legalize pot? So what? Isn’t everyone doing that or at least doing it and slapping on a bureaucratic moniker like decriminalization?

Details matter. Mujica’s initial proposal essentially sets out what might be called weed socialism. The plan foresees the national government becoming the source of hemp supply for all Uruguayan users.

Any interested adult would go to a consumer pot registry and, once enlisted, be entitled every month to buy up to 40 joints, or porros, as they’re called in Spanish (much better than the Anglo-Saxonism or even “reefer”).

Okay, let me anticipate a multitude of reader comments here: What’s any of this have to do with science? First, Bloomberg: the New York mayor is big on his data-driven approach to getting citizens to behave properly. The Atlantic just ran a critique by researchers involved in the studies cited by the Bloomberg administration to justify the cap on drink size, economists who predicted that his plan may backfire. In the lab, people will over-consume when freely offered super-size portions. Having to choose among a range of sizes on their own in the real world is a different story. There, they tend to pick what they are used to drinking, whether a large or small beverage. Limiting consumption in that situation, the economists contend, may only prompt over-imbibing later: I was good this morning so I can splurge this afternoon.

So much for Northern Hemisphere science. There’s a long tradition of New York mayors imploding as their time in office nears a close. Now back to the southern cone. Mujica’s plan might be similarly science-challenged. Like his buddy Mike, he might be running into his own "size matters" problem.

The minutiae of goods-rationing systems (operations research is science, right?) were a strength (maybe the wrong word) of the former Soviet bloc, but five-year plans for bread and dishwashers are a bit different than dealing recreational drugs at the state store.

The Mujica plan tentatively foresees making available for purchase no more than 40 porros a month. Researching the optimal-allotment size question is not grist for a typical PubMed search. Little more than a joint a day for regular users, though, might be viewed as a form of deprivation, which could lead to the same kind of compensatory over-indulgence engaged in by soda drinkers who expect their daily due. The extra supply would have to come from the illicit market.

For the government, the logistics might prove a touch daunting even for a country with a small population. Some reports have the national government planning to track the porros with chemical signatures and requiring users to return the roaches to the state store, presumably to ensure that the cigarettes weren't resold after purchase. All this in the end may get worked out: as president, Mujica has often projected more the pragmatism of Brazil's Lula than the dogmatism and hyperbole of Venezuela's Chavez.

Anyway, one expects quirky ingenuity from newly developing countries. Uruguay is only a few hundred miles from the Bolivian border, a place where President Evo Morales has promoted the message that la hoja de la coca no es droga. And Bolivia is right next to Chile, which, at the other end of the political spectrum, once served as a social laboratory for Milton Friedman’s free-market ideas during the Pinochet years.

Nationalizing pot sales is just what you would expect from a 77-year-old former leader of the Tupamaro urban guerilla movement—and it marks a challenge to the long-time U.S. regional policy of viewing drug control as a relentless battle against suppliers. This time, though, Mujica shouldn’t count on another call and charitable offering from compañero Mike. Maybe, rather, a congratulatory tweet arriving from the outer reaches of the great beyond and signed by Abbie Hoffman.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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