Uruguay Takes Historic Step Toward Becoming First Country to Legally Regulate Marijuana
Initiative Reflects Broad Political Shift as Latin American Countries Seek Alternatives to Drug Prohibition and the War on Drugs
The Uruguayan House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a bill to legally regulate marijuana. Passing with 50 out of 99 votes, the bill now goes to the Senate. If approved by the Senate, Uruguay will become the first country in the world to legally regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana.
The marijuana legalization proposal was put forward by President José Mujica of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) last June as part of a 15-measure package aimed at fighting crime and public insecurity. The bill allows three forms of access to marijuana: domestic cultivation of 6 plants, membership clubs similar to those found in Spain, and licensed sale in pharmacies.
It also prohibits sales to minors, driving under the influence, and all forms of advertising.
In the year since Mujica announced the proposal, support for the initiative has risen among diverse sectors of Uruguayan society. A national TV ad campaign, featuring a mother, a doctor, and a lawyer explaining the measure’s benefits on public safety and health – has reached hundreds of thousands of Uruguayans.
“Regulación Responsable” (Responsible Regulation), the coalition of prominent Uruguayan organizations and individuals that support the initiative, has held events around the country, sparking debate at all levels. LGBT, women’s rights, health, student, environmental and human rights organizations have all united to support Regulación Responsable, alongside trade unions, doctors, musicians, lawyers, athletes, writers, actors and academics.
Mujica and a growing chorus of current and former Latin American political leaders are contending that legal regulation will separate marijuana users from the offer of more dangerous drugs on the black market, allow access to medical marijuana for patients in need, and enable Uruguay to reinvest the millions of dollars now flowing into the pockets of drug traffickers into education, treatment and prevention of problematic drug use.
The bill represents an adjustment to fix a contradiction in Uruguayan law, where the use of marijuana and all other drugs is legal – but the production, distribution and sale are penalized. As a result, the country has a substantial black market for drugs and has suffered from an escalating prohibition-related violence.
“At the heart of the Uruguayan marijuana regulation bill is a focus on improving public health and public safety,” said Hannah Hetzer, who is based out of Montevideo, Uruguay, as the policy manager of the Americas for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “Instead of closing their eyes to the problem of drug abuse and drug trafficking, Uruguay is taking an important step towards responsible regulation of an existing reality.”
In recent years, debate and political will for drug policy reform has gained unprecedented momentum in Latin America. In 2011, Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to “break the taboo” on exploring alternatives to the failed War On Drugs – and to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs,” especially marijuana.
More recently, current presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, and José Mujica in Uruguay have joined these calls for reform. In May, the Organization of American States produced a report, commissioned by heads of state of the region, that included marijuana legalization as a likely policy alternative. The OAS report predicted a likely hemispheric move towards marijuana legalization in the coming years.
“Sometimes small countries do great things,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Uruguay’s bold move does more than follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington. It provides a model for legally regulating marijuana that other countries, and U.S. states, will want to consider – and a precedent that will embolden others to follow in their footsteps.”