Uruguay Rejects “The War on Drugs”: Law Proposes State Control of Marijuana Production and Distribution

President José Mujica

On Aug. 8 the Uruguayan government sent legislation to the parliament containing only one article: “The state assumes control and regulation of the activities related to the importation, production, acquisition of any title, storage, commercialization, and distribution of marihuana and its associated products, in terms and conditions defined by the respective regulation.”

Source: Americas Program

The government of President José Mujica achieved its main objective when it proposed legalizing marijuana: to spark a broad national debate regarding drugs, prohibitionist policies, and the repressive measures used to date.

State participation “would ruin” the market “ for the marihuana traffickers “because we will sell the product cheaper at a price you can’t get on the black market”, Mujica said to CNN [1]. The president told reporter Andres Oppenheimer “that a private business” could be in charge of selling marijuana, under strict state control.

“And if this law is passed wouldn’t it make Uruguay a tourist mecca for marijuana smokers?”, Oppenheimer asked. Mujica responded that his plan is “a mechanism for Uruguayans” would be registered and get a monthly ration, and that foreigners would not be able to buy marijuana.

“What we cannot do pretend to be ignorant and look the other way”, while consumption increases along with violence associated with drug trafficking, concluded Mujica.

On Aug. 8 the Uruguayan government sent legislation to the parliament containing only one article: “The state assumes control and regulation of the activities related to the importation, production, acquisition of any title, storage, commercialization, and distribution of marihuana and its associated products, in terms and conditions defined by the respective regulation.”

The explained motives behind the proposed legislation criticizes prohibitionist policies because they have aggravated the drug problem and the objectives of legalization establish that “users not be stigmatized or treated under penal law, but instead create conditions to work with them and with society as a whole.”

Based on field studies, the government maintains that the consumption of marijuana widely considered legitimate in society. It also affirms that “this substance, whose capacity to generate physical or psychological dependency is slight to moderate, is clearly differentiated in the risks it poses from other drugs with far greater toxicological and addictive potential.” Included in the group of addictive and toxic drugs are cocaine, alcohol, tobacco, and psycho-pharmacological drugs.

The proposed legislation states that marijuana users who do not have problems associated with the drug, “are exposed to psychological, social and legal risks due to the necessity of obtaining the drug illegally.” This is the main point issue that legalization seeks to address.

The government’s proposal served to open up a wide social debate on drugs, where finer points are being discussed since the objective is to regulate and control marijuana so it is no longer a step toward consumption of cocaine paste, which the government considers the most dangerous.

War against drugs and repression

Julio Calzada, secretary general of the National Drugs Board, an office of the presidency, is part of a different generation from the current president. A sociologist and former member of the MLN-Tupamaros youth, he stood out in grassroots movements that espoused non-traditional ways of dealing with social problems.

In his analysis to support the new drug policy, he goes back two centuries to the two opium wars fought against China [2] that in his opinion were wars of piracy that led to the 1912 Conference at the Hague where the International Convention on Opium was signed establishing a number of drug prohibitions.

“If we analyze what has occurred over the last 40 years, after the Vietnam War the war on drugs become part of the lexicon and there are those who argue that with the fall of the Berlin wall the drug war was promoted due to the need for a new enemy after communism disappeared as a credible adversary”, Calzada declared during an interview the CIP Americas Program. [3]

“In 1998 the UN established [goals for] a substantial reduction in the production, commercialization and use of three substances and a series of very restrictive policies. After ten years, in 2008 an evaluation was conducted that discovered the production and consumption of opium increased by 120% and that cannabis and cocaine registered important increases.”

As a result, he notes, “when you look at the results, they are contrary to what was intended, we should make a change. For us, the key isn’t prohibition but regulation.”

In the opinion of the principal government adviser on drugs, prohibition generates two types of extremely harmful deregulation–it leaves intact black markets for drugs and it gives power to financial circuits dedicated to laundering illegal money.

A bold bet

Even though Uruguay is not the first country in the world to legalize the consumption of marijuana, Uruguayan will be the first to produce it legally. This is a bold move that shakes up the status quo and obliges the political system to engage in a debate that began and grew within society some time ago.

In many countries around the world within the last few decades there have been important legal changes. Holland is an important point of reference since it separated the marijuana and heroin markets back in 1978. “The results were so good that Holland had a much lower incidence during the AIDS crisis of the1980’s,” Calzada explains.

The legalization proposal involves separating the marijuana market from other drugs, after finding that marijuana consumers approach illegal dealers and if they cannot obtain marijuana sometimes end up buying heroin. An important example is Portugal, which stopped penalizing the use of marihuana without registering any negative impacts.

“In Uruguay consumption has never been penalized, so we can’t make comparisons like the Argentines can when they legalize the consumption of marihuana,”continued Calzada. A different case is Australia, which has regulated cultivation for personal consumption since the 1980’s, something the Mujica government rejects.

The Uruguayan diplomatic corps is taking its policy position on drugs to different world forums. The Uruguayan Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Milton Romani, who led the National Commission on Drugs during the administration of Tabaré Våzquez (2005-2010), highlighted that he supports three principles: “the adequate integration of the system of human rights into the penalization of drugs; the participation of civil society in the design of international policies, at the UN and the OAS, and the openness for an transparent democratic debate to rethink penalization policies on the international and regional levels that transcends the regulation of markets through penal law.”[4].

Geopolitical Risks

The Cartagena Summit saw an unprecedented convergence of critiques of the war on drugs driven by the U.S., from countries with very different governments like Colombia and Guatemala, on one side, and Bolivia and Uruguay, on the other.

“The Cartagena Summit gave a mandate to the OAS to conduct an extensive study, analyzing the actual policies regarding drugs in collaboration with the IDB (Inter-American Development Bank) and the Pan-American Health Organization,” Romani explains.

In his opinion, “a drug policy that bases regulation on punitive laws has proven to be insufficient and cause harm.” He noted that President Juan Manuel Santos stated that “the problem of drugs is like a waterbed, step on one side and the other rises.”

The proposal to convert the government into the producer and distributor of marijuana has not only been criticized by the opposition, but has a long road to travel to define the rules with the objectives expressed by Calzada of  “guaranteeing that there are no deviations into a national or regional black market.” A geopolitical reality limits the capacity of one country to adopt measures of this type without running the risk of affecting the entire region that, he hopes, will take the same path in the years to come.

“The term legalization opens up to different interpretations, such as buying marijuana at a local store, something not true,” declared Calzada. Regulation would encompass every component of the trade including financing, production, and distribution to the point of sale, although it would not remain a government operation.

According to the last national poll on the consumption of drugs this past May, there are 75,000 habitual consumers of marijuana, that is, persons who consume between 30 to 60 cigarettes of marijuana per month (some 30 grams). When occasional users are include, the estimate rises to130,000. [5]

One of the most controversial aspects is how to establish a registry of users, which means that buyers must show their identification cards to make a purchase. Based on this method, when the user goes to buy they do not run the risk of being offered other drugs, as currently happens. The separation of markets is the product of long experience, and backed up by field studies.

“All users of cocaine paste consumed marijuana before,” Calzada says. The path to use of cocaine paste begins with alcohol, beginning at age 12 to 13 years, and continues with tobacco, depending the person’s age when they started smoking at or about 15 years of age, then marihuana use, which begins heavily at 17 years of age.

Just a few continue on to cocaine paste or cocaine. “When a major seizure of marihuana occurs the price rises and some people switch to paste,” explains Calzada to show how legalization can act to stop the cycle.

Buyer Beware

The new official drug policy, launched at the beginning in June, establishes five mechanisms to attend to drug users, the greatest concern for the government. The Hospital Teams for Immediate Response in Addictive Crisis can hospitalize the addict for three to six days until the crisis abates. There will be four teams, two in the capital, Montevideo.

In conjunction, they will create various “on-hand units” as listening centers and mobile doctors’ offices based on experience accumulated since 2007 through various NGO’s that work in the streets and in the community. In Montevideo these work in neighborhoods with high levels of social decay and are accompanied by detox programs.

Through these efforts, the government calculates it can reach 30 percent of paste users, who will be in out-patient clinics, prisons, and treatment centers.

Calzada maintains that the consumption of cocaine paste is leveling off and even dropping slightly, while alcohol consumption has risen dramatically and the experimental consumption of marijuana and cocaine grown slightly. The most worrisome case, is alcohol, which the society treats as though it were unimportant and yet it is the gateway to the use of other dangerous drugs.

“We are undergoing important cultural changes related to the use of leisure time, the hours of operation for bars and family control, which means that persons between 15 and 17 years of age are the most exposed and vulnerable when consuming psycho-active substances. We cannot remain indifferent when one out of three youths has episodes of acute intoxication in the past 15 days,” Calzada concludes.

Uruguayan society has calmly accepted the proposal to legalize marijuana, which would cultivated on 150 hectares under the control of the army. However, it will not be easy to turn away from the “heavy-handed” measures against youth.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha of Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements in the Multiversidad Franciscana of Latin America, and advisor to several grassroots organizations. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the CIP Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.

Translation: Joseph J. García

Editor: Laura Carlsen


Brecha (semanario), “La Lupa”, Aug.10, 2012.

El Observador (diario), “Empresa privada venderá marihuana”, Aug. 19, 2012.

Entrevista a Julio Calzada, presidente de la Junta Nacional de Drogas, Aug.  2012.

Entrevista a Milton Romani, ex presidente de la Junta Nacional de Drogas, July 2012.

Photo: Pangeanews

[1] El Observador, 19 de agosto de 2012

[2] Guerras del Opio (1839–1842 y 1856–1860) por la cuales Inglaterra impuso el contrabando británico de opio de la India Británica hacia la China ya que este paìs rechazaba el comercio de opio.

[3] Entrevista a Julio Calzada.

[4] Entrevista a Milton Romani.

[5] Brecha, 22 de junio de 2012. “Experienciales” son consumidores no habituales.