Uruguay takes 'war on drugs' in new direction: The state as dealer

The South American country is proposing a state monopoly over marijuana in part to curtail drug-related violence. But it's getting pushback – even from those in favor of legalization.

Andres Stapff/Reuters
Marijuana grower and activist Juan Vaz checks a Marijuana plants in Montevideo, August 9. Uruguay's government has sent a bill to Congress that would allow the state to grow and sell marijuana, a move that President Jose Mujica says will cut crime associated with illegal drug trafficking.

Uruguay has long been at the vanguard of social reform in Latin America. Today, it is on the verge of passing into law one of its most radical ideas yet.

The Broad Front – the center-left coalition that holds power – is proposing a state monopoly over the production and distribution of marijuana, making Uruguay the first national government to sell cannabis directly to citizens. The government says the measure is necessary to combat rising drug-related crime, decrease health risks for users, and counter ineffective US policies on drugs. But within Uruguay, interest groups have labeled the legislation totalitarian, while some international bodies argue it breaches global conventions.

“We’re putting this forward as international policy,” says Sebastian Sabini, president of the parliamentary commission created to debate the bill. “The war on drugs has failed. There are more consumers and more violence.”

“Uruguay is opening up a new path,” he says.

Pushing the envelope

Uruguay is often overshadowed by the far larger economies of its neighbors Brazil and Argentina. But the country has made a name for itself with a long history of pushing the envelope on social issues.

In 1918, Uruguay became one of the first countries in the region to officially separate the state from the Roman Catholic Church. It implemented South America’s oldest mandatory pension system in 1896, and a bill to decriminalize abortion is expected to pass later this year.

But the bill proposing the legalization of marijuana has been denounced by the United Nations for breaching its 1961 convention on narcotics, and Uruguayans are also skeptical: Polls say just 40 percent approve.

“We’ll end up with people who don’t use marijuana buying it to sell on and make a quick buck,” says Hugo Lacasa, a street trader in Montevideo.

In early September, a parliamentary commission began a six-month debate to refine the bill, which will next be voted on in Congress. The Broad Front has a majority in both houses, but given the audacity of the proposal, President Jose Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla, has said it must have a minimum of 60 percent approval by lawmakers. Usually, just a 51 percent simple majority is required.

'Tackling' black market

The government introduced the bill in part because of “the failure of the global ‘war on drugs,’ ” according to the text of the proposed law. It also believes that by separating the marijuana and hard drug markets, less people will become addicted to the latter – especially "paco," a cocaine-based paste.

Violence linked to the black market for drugs will plummet too, says Julio Calzada, secretary general of Uruguay’s National Committee on Drugs. “Uruguay’s criminality rate has increased by approximately 10 percent in the last few years,” Mr. Calzada says. “We can tackle that by regulating the $40 million marijuana market.”

But legalization campaigners insist the plans would place too much control in the hands of government while the UN is irked by the “grave violation” of its drug interdiction strategy.

Alternative to the 'war on drugs?'

The war on drugs was instigated by President Nixon in the 1970s in an attempt to curtail the consumption of drugs in the US. Since then, a similar strategy of zero tolerance has been adopted by politicians across the Americas, aided by Washington. Amid pushback from drug-trafficking cartels, violence has escalated, and tens of thousands of people have died.

Uruguay’s bill has been depicted as an alternative to that strategy, and other Latin American countries like Bolivia and Guatemala have expressed their support.

The Uruguayan government argues that the war on drugs can never achieve a “world without drugs.” Cannabis use rose by almost 9 percent worldwide between 1998 and 2008, proponents of the bill say.

Uruguay, a country of just 3 million people, has also supported Bolivia’s calls to legalize the coca leaf – the key ingredient of cocaine but also traditionally used in its natural state for medicinal purposes, and to stave off hunger and altitude sickness.

President Mujica said the government will require around 150 hectares, or 370 acres, of plantations to meet the needs of what they estimate are Uruguay’s 18,000 regular marijuana consumers. Most of the current supply is trafficked from Paraguay.

A 'totalitarian' bill

Mr. Sabini, the president of the parliamentary commission, says that if the state controls cultivation, smokers will be assured of a safe product.

A monthly limit of 40 grams per person will also be imposed, Mr. Calzada says. Foreigners will not be allowed to purchase the cannabis, as has been the case in popular party destinations like Amsterdam, Holland.

“The bill is there to resolve Uruguay’s problems,” said Mujica. “We don’t want drug tourism.”

However, in what may come as a surprise, the proposed legislation has not won over marijuana legalization activists, who label it totalitarian.

Juan Vaz, a leading campaigner once jailed for growing cannabis plants, is lobbying lawmakers to ensure they also allow private, domestic production. The current law would mean that individual growers keep breaking the law, and only state-run production would be legal.

“The government should regulate home cultivation rather than seek a monopoly,” says Mr. Vaz.

Mujica has said the proposal puts Uruguay “at the vanguard” once more. “The problem isn’t the marijuana in itself,” he said. “It’s the trafficking and the violence associated with the black market.”

“It’s time for a new approach,” says Mr. Calzada.

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