Making History In Montevideo


Uruguay becomes the first country to legalize the cannabis trade:

The law, effective from next year, will allow registered users to buy up to 40 grams of marijuana a month from a chemist’s; registered growers to keep up to six plants; and cannabis clubs to have up to 45 members and cultivate as many as 99 plants. A government-run cannabis institute will set the price – initially likely to be close to the current black market rate of $1 a gram – and monitor the impact of the program, which aims to bring the industry under state control and push illegal traffickers out of business.

The country’s president has positioned the law as a test:

Before the passage of the bill, president José Mujica called on the international community to assist in what he admitted was an experiment aimed at finding an alternative to the deadly and unsuccessful war on drugs. “We are asking the world to help us with this experience, which will allow the adoption of a social and political experiment to face a serious problem–drug trafficking,” he said earlier this month. “The effects of drug trafficking are worse than those of the drugs themselves.” If the results of the law prove negative, Mujica has said it could be rescinded.

Roberto Ferdman notes that the law could mean a windfall for the Uruguayan government:

The only entity allowed to deal the drug will be the government. Under the new law, Uruguayans registered with the government will be allowed to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of marijuana from government-licensed pharmacies. Private companies roped in to help produce enough weed to meet local demand will have to sell their crop to the government for distribution. The government will rake in some extra cash in the process. The black market for marijuana is worth some $40 million. The government won’t earn as much; it plans to sell the drug for about $1 a gram, roughly 30 percent less than the black market price. But it can count on a lot of customers: Uruguay has a relatively high percentage of pot smokers for the region – third only to Argentina and Chile.

Hannah Hetzer, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, sees a larger trend in the region:

In 2011, Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to “break the taboo” on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs and to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs,” especially marijuana. More recently, Presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia and Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala have joined these calls for reform. In May, the Organization of American States produced a report, commissioned by heads of state of the region, that included marijuana legalization as a likely policy alternative for the coming years.

By approving this measure, Uruguay has taken the broad regional discussion on alternatives to drug prohibition one step further, representing a concrete advance in line with growing anti-drug war rhetoric in Latin America and throughout the world.

But as much as American advocates support the law – and some have gone so far as to buy ad time for it -David Down says the law remains remains “deeply unpopular” among Uruguayans:

Consuming weed has been legal here since the 1970s, and several vocal cannabis campaigners have raised concerns about the law, criticizing the government’s plans to monitor cannabis use and limit the number of strains of weed available for sale. The opposing political party here is also threatening to push for a referendum on the law, which was opposed by 61 percent of Uruguayans polled in September. The experiment, in other words, could be short-lived.

(Photo: People take part in a demo for the legalization of marijuana in front of the Legislative Palace in Montevideo, on December 10, 2013, as the Senate discusses a law on the legalization of marijuana’s cultivation and consumption. By Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images)