Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Mixed Reactions in Uruguay to Marijuana Legalization

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Last Tuesday, Uruguayan’s Senate approved a bill in which the State will regulate the production and sale of marijuana and allow citizens to grow the plant at home.

The legislation was approved in a historic Senate vote of 16 to 13, and will allow pharmacies to sell up to 40 grams of cannabis a month to a list of registered consumers over 18 years old. According with the legislation, Uruguayan residents will be permitted to cultivate up to six plants of marijuana in their homes and up to 99 plants through government-authorized cannabis cultivation clubs.  

A new state-run agency called the Instituto de Regulación y Control del Cannabis (The Institute for Regulation and Control of CannabisIRCCA) will be in charge of issuing licenses to consumers and controlling the production, distribution and trade of marijuana.

Uruguayan President José Mujica has defended the bill as a way to fight against violent drug-related crimes. “Someone has to start in South America,” Mujica said in a 2012 interview with Brazil’s O Globo newspaper. “Somebody has to be first, because we are losing the battle against drugs and crime on the continent.”

The secretary general of Uruguay’s Junta Nacional de Drogas (National Drug Board), Julio Calzada, said the bill to legalize marijuana aims “to regulate the quality of the substance that circulates in the market and separate the cannabis market from other drugs that are by their nature more harmful to health, society and security.”

The priority of the Uruguayan government will be to prevent the legally produced drug from entering the local or international black market. “We will not allow drug-tourism. Holland made ​​that mistake,” Calzada said. Foreigners in Uruguay will not be allowed to grow or consume marijuana.

However, Uruguayans are divided on the controversial cannabis issue. A September 2013 survey conducted by Cifra, a private Uruguayan pollster, found that 63 percent of participants were opposed to the legalization of cannabis. The survey results were almost unchanged since July, when 66 percent disagreed with the legalization.

There is a fair amount of uncertainty about the law among Uruguayans, mostly because details about the distribution are yet to come. (A popular humorous video with hidden cameras captures the reactions of people trying to buy marijuana in the first “authorized” pharmacy.)

In the meantime, on street corners people are speculating about how the law is going to affect the near future of the country.

José Fernández Días, 55, a sports journalist, believes that this law marks a significant setback. “It is said that the cultivation and consumption will be controlled, but still, it is an incentive for those who never tried drugs to be tempted to do so…I think the cure may be worse than the disease,” he stated.

Meanwhile, Gonzalo Fraschini, 27, a software development engineer, is pleased with the legalization of marijuana, but uncomfortable about providing his personal information to register as a recreational marijuana user on the government database. “They peg you as a drug user. But not if you drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes, which I believe is way worse than smoking a joint.”

The international community also had mixed reaction about the legislation.

Raymond Yans, the president of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), an independent body of United Nations that monitor countries’ compliance with international drug treaties, said in a press release that Uruguay’s legalization of marijuana is breaking the international conventions on drug control.

The legalization of cannabis “will not protect young people, but rather, have the perverse effect of encouraging early experimentation, lowering the age of first use, and thus [contribute] to developmental problems and earlier onset of addiction and other disorders,” Yans said.

Mujica responded by saying that he was not surprised by Yans’ comments, and called INCB officials “reactionary old men.” The Uruguayan president noted that in parts of the United States, doctors have no problem prescribing medical marijuana. “[Now] they want to come to me to talk about legality of marijuana?” he asked.

Undoubtedly, this pioneer bill continues the trend of liberal laws passed by Mujica’s administration, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage and abortion—putting Uruguay on the map as one of the Latin America’s most progressive countries.

The executive branch has 10 days to formally publicize the law before it goes into effect. Then, the government has the next 120 days to regulate licenses and prices.

Tags: marijuana legalization, Uruguay
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