Oregonians can now get marijuana legally, and the US Supreme Court declared gay marriage bans by states unconstitutional. Uruguay–a nation very similar in size and population to Oregon–recently became the first country to legalize marijuana, and also legalized gay marriage over two years before the US. Uruguay has been in the news a lot for this. In fact, almost any article on Uruguay in the international press will either be about these laws, or reference them on the premise of making the reader interested. Yet in nine months in Uruguay, I rarely heard the words marijuana, pot, weed, cannabis, gay, or marriage. Two issues almost no one outside the country is aware of dominated the 2014 election cycle in Uruguay. La Baja was an ultimately defeated proposal to lower the age of incarceration from 18 to 16. Aratirí, is an ongoing project to extract iron from an open pit mine in cattle country four hours northeast of the capital, Montevideo.
On the streets of any Uruguayan city, I saw far more origami doves (the symbol of the campaign against La Baja) and graffiti saying “Fuera Aratirí” than any rainbow flag or marijuana leaf. So why do Uruguayans exhibit far more passion and tension about a single mine and juvenile delinquency than they do about the two issues that have garnered their tiny country worldwide attention and sent millions of Americans into rapture? To begin, most Uruguayans don’t see gay marriage and marijuana pertaining to everyday life and needs. A law student in Montevideo says, “In a country where the cost of living is so high, people are indifferent to social issues, and are only preoccupied with working.” Mining creates jobs and income. A state-run marijuana system has fewer tangible benefits. Furthermore, Uruguayans recognize that gay marriage and marijuana are issues mostly peripheral to the general good. An education student active in the ruling left-wing party in the rural city of Treinta-y-Tres says, “The marriage law and marijuana law are rights that reflect minority groups, and thus don’t have as much public importance. As for La Baja and Aratirí, they refer to the majority of the population, thus their [importance in] public opinion.” A shopkeeper in Cerro Chato (pop. 3,227) concurs. “Me and my friends think there are more important things to deal with in Uruguay than gay marriage. It isn’t important because it pertains to few.” This is a typical Uruguayan attitude. In the face of ignorance, an essentialist indifference defeats bigotry. The arguments aren’t about religion or social propriety, but simply what is most important to the most people. A history teacher in the remote town of Fraile Muerto, who is active in the opposition party, cites history as a reason for Uruguay’s apathy on social causes, “Uruguay has always been very advanced in social reforms, like the law of divorce by the sole will of the woman in the early 20th century. Thus that marijuana and equal marriage don’t generate much reaction is because Uruguayan society is already tolerant about these kinds of things”. A lawyer in the Ministry of Labor agrees that gay marriage affects few people, but adds, “marijuana is a bit different as it’s something you see more in schools. It’s a cloudy topic as far as results, so we trust technicians that the law serves to detain the advance of stronger drugs, and that legalizing pot makes them less attractive. Most people don’t know about drugs, so they think about them in terms of security, not liberty.” Marijuana legalization in Uruguay is much more associated with public safety than it is in the US. Following a spike in drug-related robberies, security is high on the list of Uruguay’s priorities. In fact, stopping the spread of hard drugs–and thus crime–is the main argument used to espouse public opinion, rather than anything ideological. It’s a matter of practicality rather than consumer choice and business opportunities. Americans often form opinions–even on something as silly as red peppers or green peppers–before stopping to realize the magnitude of the issue. The practicality inherent in Uruguayans indifference to their own innovative laws on gay marriage and marijuana illustrates how they focus attention more on collective well-being. In a nation of 3.4 million, this collective well-being is much more tangible. For better or for worse, in the vast United States, it’s victories for individuals or subgroups towards which we are most content to direct energy, and from which we are most content to derive happiness.