Uruguay War on Drugs — 20 November 2012


Chip Livingston

(photo credit: Gabriel Padilha)

Our reporter in Montevideo talks to people close to the legislation and international experts from the USA and the Netherlands who have traveled to Uruguay to help determine the final shape of the legislation.



When Uruguayan President Jose Mujica officially announced in June 2012 his political party’s plan to legalize marihuana with regulated production and sales by the government, initial reactions were mixed. Many championed the idea as one more progressive move by one of South America’s most liberal and forward-thinking countries. Government advocates argued the project would cripple the illegal trafficking trade and reduce contact between marihuana users and heavier, deadlier drugs. Pot smokers cheered the possibility of easier procurement and improved quality of the drug’s effects and flavors. More conservative residents and politicians argued against the idea with concerns ranging from the legitimization of drug use to the health hazards of smoking to the potential problems of trafficking the drug outside Uruguay’s borders.

Shortly after the announcement, opposition and allied movements began speaking up and organizing, with marches and rallies and petitions to the government with focused arguments related to the legislation, but most residents expressed their doubts that the idea would endure through the legislative process, especially when international opposition to the project grew. The U.S.-led international “war on drugs,” however, is changing as one-third of the United States has passed laws legalizing marijuana use for medicinal purposes and two U.S. states, Colorado and Washington, voted this month to legalize marihuana for recreation.

Juan, a 45-year-old private school teacher and a daily marihuana user, waved his hand dismissively when asked his opinion in July. “It’s never going to happen,” he said. “The U.S. and U.N. will never allow it, which is a shame. It’s already decriminalized to smoke it here in Uruguay, but to smoke it I have to buy it from a place where there are always zombies strung out on pasta base, and I hate having to go there just to buy marijuana.”

Juan’s worry about the drug dealers where he currently procures his cannabis was also given as a primary reason Mujica’s party, the Broad Front coalition, gave with its push for legalization. The main point the official legalization submitted to Congress on Nov. 15 hopes to alleviate is that currently marihuana users “are exposed to psychological, social and legal risks due to the necessity of obtaining the drug illegally.”

The legislation seeks to end the exposure of marijuana uses to the more dangerous drug culture of cocaine and pasta base or paco, a substance similar to crack cocaine and crystal meth. The secretary general of Uruguay’s National Drug Board is quoted in The Argentina Independent newspaper, saying that the bill aims to “separate the cannabis market from other drugs that are by their nature more harmful to health, society and security.”

Proponents argue that the legalization of marihuana cultivation and procurement only makes sense in a country where it is not illegal to smoke the substance itself, but yet it remains illegal to buy or grow. The aroma of “porro” smoke is common on the beaches and the “rambla,” a paved walking path that lines the coast of Montevideo, but also on the sidewalks and thick as the winter fog outside of bars where cigarette smokers join marihuana uses on the adjacent smoking sections.

Smoking or smelling marijuana seems to be part of everyday life in Uruguay, with the proposed legislation reading, “Marihuana has been for many years the most consumed illegal substance” in the country, adding that marijuana “has an important level of legitimacy in Uruguayan society.”

This wasn’t enough for 83-year-old Montevideo resident Coco. “It’s hypocritical for the government to promote smoking marihuana, when the current leaders have been so vocally against cigarette smoking. And now they come up with this idea to legalize and sell marijuana.”

Selling the marijuana is another integral part of the initial and adapted proposed bill. Originally Mujica said the government would cultivate and sell the marihuana, controlling the quality and commercialization of the drug, serving to initially cut profits from the drug cartels’ black market. But problems with the logistics of the solely governmental enterprise led to recent changes in the legislation, which now contains language that would allow privatization of marijuana “clubs” that the government would license and regulate, as well as allowing of private residents to grow their own plants for personal use.

While the language in the proposal has changed in the last several months, just that the idea has advanced to an actual bill before Congress has caught many skeptics with their mouths stuck open.

“I can’t believe it’s really going to happen,” said 30-year-old administrator Mauricio. “It is a great solution to stop narco traffic. Legalizing marijuana permits people to buy it without being involved with illegal agents.”

Fernanda, a 42-year-old psychologist, said she’d trust the experts and analyses on the project. “In a context where there are experts assessing and monitoring the marihuana, it’s not a mere legalization issue. They must evaluate the technical aspects that this requires.” But she added from her own opinion, “In my work I have seen many people affected by drug use, including but not only marijuana. I think that the legal use can be positive in several cases. It may even be beneficial for combating trafficking.”

Students in a Carrasco neighborhood high school were enthusiastic about the proposal. “Smoking marijuana is safer than smoking pasta base,” said Andrea. “There are no consequences for smoking pot. All my friends do and you can see it everywhere.”

“Even when it is illegal now, everybody knows somebody who smokes,” said her classmate Julian. “It should be legalized,” he said.

Their 33-year-old English teacher wasn’t as surely convinced. “It is ideal that the state produce and control it, but I don’t think it is going to be efficient,” he said. “It always happens that, in the end, our government doesn’t have the means to control or regulate (something like this).”

“We are not Holland,” he added. “We are not ready.”

But “marijuana experts” from Holland were on hand in Uruguay last month to discuss production and commercialization with government representatives. Two owners of DNA Genetics, a Netherlands-based marijuana seed distributor and hemp clothing manufacturer, came to discuss the business potential of legalization in Uruguay. The owners proposed that if Mujica’s project goes through successfully, DNA Genetics would be interested in developing a partnership to buy Uruguayan produced marihuana seeds for export.

DNA Genetics was joined by a marijuana grower from Colombia, a current provider of seeds to Holland, for a less formal lecture given to a local marijuana growers club in Montevideo. Sharing samples of high-quality marihuana products and discussing growing methods, the pot experts seemed surprised when challenged on the question of whether these “improved strains” of marijuana were genetically modified. Current Uruguay laws prohibit scientific manipulation of genetic plant and animal material, and while the DNA Genetics representatives said their plants are “grown organically,” they couldn’t argue that their clones and all-female, seedless strains of marijuana were completely natural. This serious concern didn’t seem to dampen the party after the lecture, where participants smoked liberally and even carried their products to a local bar, where a glass “bong” was placed in an outside seating area and shared openly.

Reports in local and international newspapers suggest that government representatives are also discussing logistics of legalization with pioneers in the United States, where different states have legalized and controlled distribution of marijuana clubs. Colette Youngers, a drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, also came to Montevideo to advise lawmakers on the proposal, and according to CBS News, said the push to create state-controlled markets is “similar to the law voters just approved in the U.S. state of Colorado,” adding that these changes in drug laws represent a significant shift in public opinion about marihuana.

“The (Uruguayan) government is still investigating what is going to be the best way to implement this,” Youngers told the Associated Press. “This is an experiment. No country has done this before. So they need to have a law that lays out the framework, but have the flexibility to adjust this as they implement it.”

Despite opposition from lawmakers like Senator Pedro Bordaberry – who on the Colorado Party website said, “This is going to destroy the lives of many young people in Uruguay. Drugs are harmful, whatever, you have to reduce consumption, not increase it” – Mujica’s proposal is likely to pass with Parliament controlled by Mujica’s Broad Front coalition. Yet how the government will execute and eventually realize the project, and what language comprises the final legislation, remain to be seen after the smoke clears.


Related Posts:  Uruguay legalizes growing marijuana.  Is Chile next?



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