What now for Uruguay’s drug reforms?


Amongst the many measures that have placed outgoing Uruguayan president José “Pepe” Mujica on the world map, one of the best-known is undoubtedly Law 19172.

Passed on 20 December 2013, it established a regulatory framework for the production chain of cannabis, for both therapeutic and recreational use.

Although it was not a key issue in the recent presidential election campaign, the two candidates in the second round – incoming president Tabaré Vázquez of Frente Amplio (Broad Front), and Luis Lacalle Pou of Partido Nacional (National Party) – both spoke in favour of repealing the law.

While the law does not open the marijuana market up to free competition, it does strictly regulate the entire process through the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), the government body in charge of from supervising cultivation through to sale, granting licenses to home growers and cannabis clubs, as well as authorising pharmacies to sell the substance.

But it is worth noting that drug use has, in fact, been decriminalised for four decades in Uruguay, even though the production and sale of marijuana was prohibited.

The key aims behind the 2013 legislation was to separate the marijuana market from other drugs, to improve public health, to promote greater awareness of its risks, to protect users, and to combat drug trafficking.

There are various ways to fight against drugs: an actual war fought by regular army soldiers and mercenaries on the payroll of drug traffickers, is one option. But one real alternative is to tackle the problem by legally regulating the drug market.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy – presided by former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso and composed of politicians, economists, doctors, human rights activists and global thinkers – published a report in 2011 declaring the US-led “war on drugs” a failure.

Indeed, despite being the region most affected by the policy, Latin America and the Caribbean are still world leaders in drug production and trafficking, with persistently high level of violence, corruption and impunity.

The members of the Commission, recognising the futility of the “war on drugs” strategy initiated by US president Richard Nixon in 1971, recommended a series of national and global drug policy reforms.

Uruguay has long been divided over the question of marijuana regulation.

Evidence of the uncertainty and contradictions surrounding the issue is clearly demonstrated by the opinion polls.

According to a survey by the polling company Cifra, 64 per cent of Uruguayans do not agree with the law, while 27 per cent do.

Similarly, 62 per cent of respondents said they were in favour of the law being repealed as soon as possible and 32 per cent said it should be left in force to see whether it works.

In contrast, a poll by Factum found that 78 per cent of those surveyed would prefer marijuana users to have access to the substance in places controlled by the state.

And according to an Equipos Mori poll, 74 per cent of Uruguayans are in favour of the sale of marijuana being for medicinal purposes.

The move taken by the Mujica government has not only given rise to an open debate within Uruguay but has also fuelled an increase in tensions internationally.

According to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) – the Vienna-based body in charge of monitoring compliance with United Nations international conventions on drug control – the Uruguayan decision contravenes the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Raymond Yans, president of the INCB, said in a press release that “the decision of the Uruguayan legislature fails to consider its negative impacts on health since scientific studies confirm that cannabis is an addictive substance with serious consequences for people’s health”.


Impact and benefits

In a country with a total population of 3.4 million, and where livestock and agriculture are mainstays of the economy, new jobs linked to marijuana cultivation could be created in Uruguay.

In an interview with Equal Times, Julio Calzada, general secretary of the National Drugs Board (JND), explained: “The Uruguayan labour market is very small, there are already 200 jobs in the cultivation, production and distribution sectors. Within four to five years, there will be over a 1000 new jobs.”

With 115,000 unemployed people in a workforce of approximately 1.7 million (according to the International Labour Organization data), all new decent jobs are welcome in Uruguay.

But the most important aspect, Calzada continues, “comes with the regulation of cannabis for medical use, as it is a key area for developing and incorporating cutting-edge technology.

“Companies with capital and resources from various countries are ready to invest, and there are also academic groups and research centres wanting to establish themselves in Uruguay and to work in partnership with the University of the Republic (UdelaR).”

It was the Uruguayan pro-civil rights association Proderechos that promoted the change in the legislation on drugs, based on the conviction that prohibitionist policies lead, among other problems, to “corruption, drug trafficking armies more powerful than states, low-quality drugs, problematic users excluded from health systems and humanitarian emergencies in prisons, etc.”

The impact of drugs on the prison situation is, indeed, significant.

A study by the Uruguayan NGO Servicio Paz y Justicia de Uruguay (Peace and Justice Service, orSERPAJ) shows that those serving prison sentences for drug-related offences – from possession to trafficking – represent 15.3 per cent of the total prison population.

This is second only to those in prison for theft (26.2 per cent).

Drugs not only affect people’s personal lives but also carry implications in terms of public health and safety, risks and economic resources.

Decriminalising and legally regulating the marijuana market does not imply the belief that the substance is safe and causes no harm. On the contrary, it shows that the state has decided to tackle, without prejudice, a social and economic issue.

According to the pro-marijuana coalition Regulación Responsable (Responsible Regulation), the Uruguayan government could collect revenues of around US$30 million a year from legalised marijuana sales.

Given the global failure of prohibitionist and repressive policies, Uruguay is set to become a test lab for policies aimed at regulating and controlling a market hitherto controlled by drug trafficking, with its revenues being redirected from powerful cartels to the state.

It is an experimental model ultimately aimed at fighting drug trafficking rings, avoiding the marginalisation of users and providing more information and prevention mechanisms.

The effects of this new policy will be assessable in the medium term by measuring the data on violence and insecurity, the level of investment in education and health generated by the new revenues and, also, the quality of the jobs created.

Although Mujica will not be able to launch the sale of marijuana before the end of his term in office – leaving President-Elect Vázquez with the responsibility – there is no doubt that Uruguay has opened up a debate that is set to continue.