Category Archives: marijuana policy

Uruguay Votes to Become the First Nation to Legally Regulate Cannabis

 The traditional [interdiction] approach hasn’t worked. Someone has to be the first [to try this].  President José Mujica of Uruguay, June 2013

On Tuesday 10th December Uruguay made history by voting to establish a legally regulated system for production and supply of cannabis for recreational purposes.  In November 2012, two US States – Washington and Colorado – voted to legally regulate marijuana for recreational purposes, but the vote in Uruguay makes it  the first country to establish such a system anywhere in the world.

After much debate, on 31st July 2013 Uruguay’s House of Representatives voted in favour of a bill to regulate the production, sale and use of cannabis.  Details of the bill can be found here (in Spanish).  This bill was then passed to the Senate who approved the bill on 10th December.  The bill passed by 16 to 13 votes.  President Mujica is likely to sign the bill into law before the end of 2013 with the first sales likely to be in April 2014.

The new law was proposed in many ways as a response to the increased use within the country of a highly addictive cocaine derivative called ‘paco’ and the fact that the markets for this drug and marijuana are closely connected. Key aims of cannabis regulation are  to separate the markets so that marijuana users are  not exposed to ‘paco’ by dealers and to allow law enforcement officials to concentrate on what is deemed to be a more problematic substance.  It is also intended that the legislation will  reduce the size and impact of the black market in marijuana as well as tackle drug trafficking organisations, particularly those importing the drug from neighbouring Paraguay.

The law will:

  • Create a state-run monopoly of production, distribution and consumption of marijuana
  • Establish a government-run Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis  (IRCCA) that will set the price – initially likely to be  $1 a gram in order to undercut the black market – and monitor the impact of the programme.
  • Mean that cannabis will be sold only at licensed pharmacies
  • Allow registered consumers  (Uruguayan nationals only) over the age of 18 to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 oz) of cannabis per month from licensed pharmacies and grow up to 6 plants for personal consumption
  • Allow cannabis clubs to be established for up to 45 members who will be able to cultivate as many as 99 plants.

In seeking to ensure successful passage of the bill, its supporters within the Uruguayan government and civil society groups, have been in communication with their counterparts in Washington and Colorado in order to learn from their experiences.  One of these civil society groups – Regulacion Responsable – created a video in an effort  to help explain the benefits of the new bill to the general public, large sections of which still remain  sceptical of it.

Polls suggest about 60% of the population remains opposed to legal regulation although support has been growing slightly.  Opposition politicians have threatened to call a referendum on the bill but the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition has framed it as an ‘experiment’ and has promised that they are willing to look at any evidence both in support of, and against, the new regulatory regime. 

Uruguay’s groundbreaking new law will be watched by many other countries who are interested in reforming their drug laws.  While no country is currently ready to replicate the Uruguayan model, the historic policy shift will surely send ripples across the international community.  Indeed, operating at odds with the UN drug control treaties that bind parties to the prohibition of non-medical and non-scientific use of cannabis, events in Montevideo have provoked condemnation from both the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). 

The INCB President Raymond Yans said on Wednesday  11th December that he was “surprised that a legislative body that has endorsed an international law and agreements, and a Government that is an active partner in international cooperation and in the maintenance of the international rule of law, knowingly decided to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions of the treaty”.

Both these UN drug control bodies fear for the integrity of prohibition-oriented international drug control framework.  So they should. As Martin Jelsma, Coordinator of the Drugs & Democracy Programme at the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute (TNI) has noted: “The approval of regulation under state control in Uruguay marks a tipping point in the failed war against drugs. The trend is becoming irreversible: the era of a globally enforced cannabis prohibition regime is drawing to a close”.

The Beginning of the End for the Pot Prohibition

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The beginning of the end for the ‘war on weed’ in the US?

A new survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports in August 2013 shows that 82% of Americans think the US is losing the war on drugs. Only 4% of respondents believe the US is winning this war. This survey comes at a sensitive time for US commitment to the ‘war on drugs’ or the ‘war on weed’ at least.

In November 2012 two US states – Washington and Colorado – voted to tax and regulate recreational adult use of cannabis. Earlier this year Pew Research found a majority of the public – 52% – think the drug should be legal. The same poll also found that almost three quarters of Americans – 72% – think that efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth.

Now it seems that even the federal government is having doubts about the benefits of criminalising pot smokers. In August US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that low level, nonviolent drug offenders with no history of ties to gangs or organised crime shouldn’t be charged with offences that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

Also in August CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta (reportedly Obama’s choice for US Surgeon General, though Gupta turned the post down) made a documentary about the medical benefits of marijuana. Gupta argued that the DEA’s insistence that cannabis has “no accepted medicinal use and a high potential for abuse” has little scientific basis and that the American public has been “systematically misled” about cannabis and apologized for his role in this. The White House has refused to comment on Gupta’s documentary and in fact since Obama took office raids on medical marijuana dispensaries have increased.

On 29th of August 2013 the Department of Justice released a memorandum to US attorneys and law enforcement officials noting that whilst they should continue to enforce the federal government’s prohibition on marijuana the main focus in those states that allow some form of cannabis use – either for recreational purposes such as Washington and Colorado – or for medical use should be on eight key areas:

• Preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors;
• Preventing revenue from the sale of marijuana from going to criminal enterprises, gangs and cartels;
• Preventing the diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal under state law in some form to other states;
• Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;
• Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;
• Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands; and
• Preventing marijuana possession or use on federal property

This guidance is an attempt to resolve the tensions between state laws and federal law with regards to cannabis. The commitment to maintaining the prohibition on pot is essential – not least because they are signed up to international treaties such as the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs – however Obama has been open about his own weed smoking as a college student and must find it hard to ignore the shifting public opinion especially when more people voted to tax and regulate pot in Colorado than voted for him.

So the big question many drug law reformers in the US are asking is, ‘Is this the beginning of the end for pot prohibition?’