Pioneering Cannabis Regulation in Uruguay

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

In December 2013, about a year after Colorado and Washington voters made their states the world’s first jurisdictions to legalize recreational marijuana markets, Uruguay enacted the world’s first national framework to legally regulate the cultivation, distribution, and use of marijuana for medical, industrial, and recreational purposes. “The traditional approach hasn’t worked,” said Uruguayan President José Mujica when the controversial marijuana regulation initiative was first launched in June 2012. “Someone has to be the first.”

In May, Uruguay unveiled the detailed rules for its non-medical market, and guidelines for the new medical marijuana system are likely to be published this summer. Regulated marijuana production and sales are anticipated to begin in late 2014 or early 2015.

Uruguay’s leaders stress that their effort is meant to address their own particular circumstances, and not serve as a model for export to other countries. In an address to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna in March 2014, President Mujica’s chief of staff, Diego Cánepa, said that though his country has chosen to combat drug trafficking through regulation of the marijuana market, “We don’t believe in, nor want to be, a model for anyone.” Nonetheless, if Uruguay can enact and implement such legislation—in the face of harsh criticism from the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), but pronounced silence from the United States—then so too can other national governments.

At the same time, Uruguay’s leaders are conscious of their pioneering role, and ask that other governments respect their country’s new approach. In response to outrageous assertions by INCB President Raymond Yans that Uruguay was behaving like a “pirate” nation, Mujica’s government has countered that the new law is entirely consistent with the original spirit of the UN drug treaties to promote the “health and welfare of mankind” and is aligned with Uruguay’s fundamental human rights obligations.

To date, the state-level legalization laws approved in the United States have been the result of ballot initiatives. By contrast, Uruguay’s law was the outcome of deliberations within the national legislature. Moreover, the law was enacted not on a wave of public support, but despite polls showing that most Uruguayans do not support the initiative. President Mujica and lawmakers of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) Coalition were convinced that the time had come for a new approach to the drug problem, and used their political coalition’s majority control of both legislative chambers to make it a reality.

Now, even with the law approved, most Uruguayans remain to be convinced. President Mujica and Frente leaders are hopeful that over time a majority will change their views as the law makes progress towards its key goals. Those goals include taking the marijuana market out of the hands of criminal enterprises; separating the legal marijuana market from the illegal market for more harmful substances; and reducing marijuana-associated health risks. The public’s continued skepticism means that solid implementation and evaluation of the new law will be crucial to its political sustainability.

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