For a small country of 3.3 million people, Uruguay has a big voice. It was heard loud and clear two weeks ago when President José Mujica announced a plan that would put the legal control —production, sales and distribution — of marihuana in the sole hands of the Uruguayan government. Mujica refers to the plan as an anti-crime measure, a direct assault on drug dealers and the black market, which is becoming increasingly violent in Uruguay.
Government control of the marihuana market would deprive gangs of marihuana profits, US$750 million a year to be exact, while nixing the consumer and drug dealer interaction. Part of the plan is also to combat harder drug use. It is hoped that legal access to marihuana will divert users away from cocaine and pasta base, a crack-like drug known as paco in Argentina.
Julio Calzada, secretary general of Uruguay’s National Drug Board, has said the bill aims “to regulate the quality of the substance that circulates in the market and separate the cannabis market from other drugs that are by their nature more harmful to health, society and security.”
Though the kinks are still being worked out and the bill is yet to be presented to Congress, a left-wing majority indicates it is only a matter of time before it is approved. The institution of the proposal would make the Uruguayan state the only one in South America to directly sell marihuana.
Paving the Way
At April’s Summit of the Americas in Colombia, Latin American leaders cleared the air to discuss Latin America’s current drug crisis, which has claimed over 50,000 lives in Mexico throughout the last six years, and turned countries like Honduras into violent narco trafficking zones.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina and Salvadorian president Mauricio Funes have all voiced consideration of marihuana decriminalisation. While no particular plans were made at the summit, Latin American leaders were able to agree on one thing: the current fight against drug trafficking has failed and a new solution is needed.
Uruguay’s defence minister, Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, has said drug violence, plus the growing costs of interdiction and incarceration, are “causing more problems than the drugs themselves.”
Uruguay has seen a rise in crime stemming from drug deals. In April 2011, a major Colombian drug trafficking ring was found operating in Montevideo, and a May 2011 survey by the polling firm Interconsult showed 62% of Uruguayans felt Uruguay was becoming more unsafe.
Mujica said a country needed to step up to the plate in drug decriminalisation, and that Uruguay would be the one to do it. He said smaller Latin American nations are better posed to attempt experiments like this one, as it gives large countries something to learn from. “Uruguay is a small country, where these sort of things are easier to do,” Mujica said to Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
Mujica’s bold proposal is not unique for Uruguay, a country famous for its progressive policies. Uruguay was the first country in South America to legalise divorce, grant women the right to vote and recognise the rights of trade unions.
As opposed to decriminalisation, which only lessens and revises the penalties for possession of marihuana, the proposed bill is a legalisation measure, allowing the legal use of marihuana as marketed by the Uruguayan government.
The plan is part of a 16-measure package designed by the government to combat violence and public insecurity.
Several of the bill’s details are still being debated, and Fernández Huidobro has said more details are to come soon. As it stands, state authorised networks, including businesses and marihuana-associated clubs, will sell and distribute the drug. Self-cultivation is not included in the bill, and previous attempts to legalise it have not passed through Congress.
Only Uruguayan citizens 18 years of age or older will be able to purchase a maximum of 30 grams (40 marihuana cigarettes) per month. Profits from a sales tax will be directed toward drug rehabilitation services for users who exceed the monthly cap.
Originally, officials voiced the institution of a registry or user database, to monitor who is receiving the marihuana, as well as how much. However recently, according to the Wall Street Journal, Fernández Huidobro said the registry might not be best, as it “sounds a little authoritarian and perhaps we should avoid it.”
If the bill passes through Congress, Fernández Huidobro said Uruguayan farmers will begin planting in September and harvesting will occur six months later.
The government estimates Uruguay will need 100 hectares of land to cultivate an annual 28,000 kilos of marihuana for the country’s 150,000 users.
Currently, Uruguay does not have a law against marihuana use or possession, though its commercialisation is forbidden. Rodrigo Filpo, 28, from Montevideo, says it is fairly common to see Uruguayans smoking marihuana in public.
The Uruguayan plans, whilst original, are part of a regional movement towards a softer approach to the drug problem. In Argentina, a 2009 Supreme Court ruling deemed it unconstitutional to penalise drug possession for personal use, and a number of bills to decriminalise the possession of marihuana are being debated in Congress. Mexico decriminalised the possession of small amounts of marihuana, cocaine and heroin in 2009. Colombia and Brazil have also taken steps toward decriminalisation of marihuana.
Uruguayan officials have made it clear that the government-run marihuana market would exclude foreigners, relieving fears that Uruguay would become another Holland, where marihuana’s legality has made the country a drug tourist destination. Only now are The Netherlands setting roadblocks for tourists seeking access to marihuana.
“We will not allow drug-tourism. Holland made that mistake,” said Julio Calzada, secretary general of the National Drug Board.
The age limit, sales tax, and transparency involved in the bill leave some to question the continued existence of a black market, but officials have voiced their top priority is to prevent marihuana from entering a local or global black market.
According to the Associated Press, Mujica has said that “we’ll have to regulate farm production so there’s no contraband and regulate distribution. We must make sure we don’t affect neighbouring countries or be accused of being an international drug production centre.”
Rafael Bayce García Lagos, a Social Sciences professor at the Republic University in Uruguay, says, “I do not think there will be problems with neighbouring countries, because it will minimise their internal problem of supply. Why would Brazil and Argentina care if there is a drug-tourism industry in Uruguay? They wouldn’t, to the contrary, it would soften the problems they think they might have.”
Uruguay may have a roadblock on its way to passing the bill, though, as Yury Fedotov, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, recently voiced. He said that if Uruguay legalises marihuana production and distribution, it would be violating the Single Convention, an international agreement between Uruguay and other countries to curb the drug trade and stop trafficking. The International Narcotics Control Board is rumoured to be planning a visit to Uruguay to discuss the country’s movements toward marihuana legalisation.
Internal opinion on the bill remains divided in both political and public realms. García Lagos says there is a “strong current within the leftist coalition [currently in government] that supports the decriminalisation of marihuana and the regulation of self-cultivation.” He adds that young people siding with the Partido Colorado, Partido Blanco and independent parties are also in favour of the bill.
Opposition leaders have called the measure “absurd,” saying it will only worsen drug use in the country. The Wall Street Journal reported Pedro Bordaberry, a Uruguayan opposition leader, as having said, “We were waiting for measures to combat insecurity, and now the government proposes legalising drugs. It makes no sense.”
A June 2012 Interconsult poll showed 60% of Uruguayans are against state-regulation of marihuana.
Others, like Filpo, see the potential promise in the bill. “I don’t see how this plan could make things worse, and if it helps get poor kids out of harder drugs like pasta base, I think it can really have a positive effect among the lowest classes,” he said.
Though supporters and opponents of marihuana legalisation may disagree on the issue, most can agree on the need for action. In the word of the Uruguayan president, “Someone has to get going in South America. Someone has to be the first because we are losing the war against drugs and crime in the continent.”
What do people in Buenos Aires think about their neighbour’s move to legalise marihuana? Click here to find out.