How Uruguay Left Pot ‘Prohibitionism’ Behind

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Photo by Brett Levin via Flickr

Large lines of customers and tons of expectations. That was the scene outside a handful of Uruguayan pharmacies on the chilly morning of July 19. It was not an ordinary morning, but the first day of legal marijuana sales in my home country.

The demand proved to be so high that only few hours after sales started, many pharmacies had run short of pot. Additionally, collapses in the fingerprint system installed to identify authorized customers were reported several times due to high activity.

Interest and enthusiasm rapidly spread among customers, many of whom became registered users that very same day. Only ten days after sales started, the registry of users increased from nearly 4,500 to 8,500, and 21 kilos of weed had been sold in the 16 authorized selling pharmacies across the country.

The long campaign to legalize marijuana reflected a notable change from the moderate and discrete tone in public policy which we Uruguayans are used to. It was celebrated not just by cannabis advocates, but by social organizations, liberals and progressives—all of whom saw the right to consume marijuana as an essential step in our country’s political process.

But for the government, arguably, the four-year process produced a very painful migraine.

The law that regulates the market of cannabis was approved by the Uruguayan Congress in 2013. The law allows Uruguayan citizens older than 18 years of age to obtain the substance in three different ways: by growing it at home, forming “cannabis clubs” to collectively produce and distribute marijuana between members, or through direct purchase in pharmacies.

The legislation had two main goals. First, it aimed to reduce illegal drug trafficking by removing cannabis from the illegal drug market. In other words, the state would take the illegal cannabis market from the hands of drug dealers.

Second, the law intended to promote and improve the public health of cannabis users by reducing risks and damages associated to its use through preventive and educational campaigns, as well as provide treatment and rehabilitation to problematic users.

In spite of being celebrated by some groups, the law never found full support in the public opinion. Even today, 62% of Uruguayans oppose the measure.

Such skepticism is noticeable, considering that only 16 of nearly 1.000 pharmacies in Uruguay decided to sell legal cannabis.

Pharmacists have been reluctant to sell marijuana mainly for three reasons.

First, because of the assumption that by doing this, pharmacies would become attractive targets to offenders. Second, because selling weed contradicts the notion of “health center” traditionally linked to pharmacies.

Third, because of the belief that the system would not report economic benefits to pharmacies.

Uruguayan President Dr. Tabaré Vasquez. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

It is true that pharmacies have been a strong obstacle to the full implementation of the law. However, personal interests have been at stake as well.

In 2014, in the midst of the debate around marijuana, Dr. Tabaré Vázquez was elected president. With him, the government’s public health paradigm changed substantially.

Vázquez had already been president between 2005 and 2010. An oncologist and strong anti-smoking advocate, he implemented firm no-smoking legislation in his first term.

When the debate on the marijuana legislation began, he made clear that he opposed the measure. His position, combined with his alignment to moderate viewpoints on public policy, had unfortunate implications for the marijuana legislation.

His reelection was seen with concern by cannabis advocates and progressive left groups, who saw in the new president a potential obstacle for the full implementation of the legislation.

And so it was.

In most of his public appearances during the election campaign and his first two years as president, Vázquez avoided mentioning the new legislation. But when he did, he never hesitated to show his skepticism towards the measure.

His position about drugs was always clear. “We don’t need to use drugs. Our body doesn’t need them,” he said in a talk with students in 2014.

His references to the new legislation were a mix of resignation and caution. In an interview he gave during the election campaign, when asked what he thought about the new legislation he responded: “It is unbelievable, but if the law says so, so be it.”

The law, however, had already been partially implemented. After domestic cultivation of cannabis and cannabis clubs had been legalized, the harvest increased and, with this, so did the pressure from social organizations and advocacy groups to fully implement the norm.

The government still balked at announcing implementation of the last and most discussed measure of the legislation: pot sales in pharmacies. Vázquez himself promised several times that this was eventually going to happen, but it seemed always too soon for him to announce a date.

Last month, it finally happened.

But in contrast to the exhaustive local and international coverage of the news, the government remained silent. Once again, the president did not hide his skepticism.

Surprisingly (or not), there was no official press release about the measure. The only words came from Vázquez himself during a speech in which he insisted that “our organism does not need drugs.”

At the same time,he also criticized the recreational use of drugs, stating that his government “strictly” opposes drug use, except “those indicated by doctors, who are those authorized to prescribe medications.”

Finally, he declared that “We must not stigmatize drug users”—but immediately added that “they are sick people who need support and help”.

Federico del Castillo

But the legislation has brought Uruguay a step closer to the goals of eliminating illegal drug traffic, promoting responsible use of drugs, and reducing the damages linked to the clandestine use of illicit drugs.

Last, but not least, Uruguay has emerged as more progressive and brave in the fight against drug traffic and the prohibitionist paradigm in contrast to its neighbors in the region.

Marijuana legislation took too long to be fully implemented. But, now that the law is operational, Uruguay can make up for the lost time by demonstrating to the rest of the world how to leave behind the prohibitionist paradigm once and for all.

Federico del Castillo is a John Jay College graduate student. He has worked on the implementation of crime prevention policies in Uruguay and Mexico, and has conducted research on policing, restorative justice and juvenile violence. He welcomes comments from readers.

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