Uruguay has become the only country in the world to fully legalise cannabis. This radical move was first proposed by the country’s Defence Ministry in the hope of reducing Uruguay’s rising crime rate. The idea was then promoted by the President José Mujica and other prominent figures, such as the Archbishop of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. After long parliamentary debates, the law passed 50-46 in Congress, a vote divided strictly on party lines.
In implementing the plan, Uruguay is following a more state-oriented approach than the US states in which cannabis is now legalised. Small, licensed clubs with a maximum of 45 registered members will be allowed to grow up to 99 plants a year at least a minimum of 150 metres away from any schools, colleges or drug rehabilitation centres. Prices will be set at about or just below current street prices, in an attempt to undercut illicit drug dealers and reduce their market share.
Many in Uruguay and abroad, however, are opposed to such liberalisation of drug laws. Some worry that the consumption of cannabis could rise under the new measures and potentially lead people to try harder drugs, with marijuana being easy to access and consumption being somewhat condoned by the state. Legalising cannabis could also send a signal to the young that the use of a drug that used to be illegal is, in fact, acceptable. Many also find it odd that a state can be involved in the distribution of a substance once considered harmful to the population. In legalising cannabis, once the ‘genie is out of the bottle’, will it not be incredibly difficult to reverse the decision?
The argument for the law was perhaps put most succinctly by Defence Minister, Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, “We think the prohibition of certain drugs is creating more problems for society than the drugs themselves”. Supporters of the new law argue that prohibition, which drives the industry into the criminal underground, has lead to a host of appalling and preventable outcomes. This is driven by insatiable demand in the West but is largely apparent in Latin America. One of many examples is Colombia; the government is locked in a fifty-year-long war with guerrillas fuelled in part by the lucrative illegal drug trade. Mexico is also engaged in a bloody fight with ruthless drug cartels, which, according to Human Rights Watch, claimed the lives of 60,000 people between 2006 and 2012 alone, and recently the tragic massacre of forty-three students. It is perhaps unsurprising that in June foreign ministers of the countries in the Organisation of American States agreed “to encourage the consideration of new approaches” to the drug problem. Reformers also see benefits in taxing cannabis sold, creating a useful revenue stream that can be used to build schools or combat addiction to substances. Would it not be better, they ask, to regulate the market for cannabis in a way similar to other condoned drugs like alcohol or tobacco?
Drugs do pose big challenges for civil society, but a fifty-year-long war on drugs in Colombia has come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives lost and more than a trillion dollars spent by the government. The war on drugs has not led to a meaningful reduction in the consumption of illicit substances worldwide either. Many want to see a new pragmatic approach to the issue, based on evidence. In legalising cannabis, Uruguay is attempting to do this, but the cartels the government is trying to undermine may have more tricks up their sleeve.
With US states like Colorado and Oregon, Uruguay has positioned itself at the forefront of progressive liberal change on drug policy, and it will be interesting to see in the years to come what the outcome of their bold experiment is. The world, and both sides of the debate, will be watching.