“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”.