Uruguay postpones vote on 'state as dealer' approach to drug regulation - but not for long?

President Mujica always said he wouldn't push the proposal if a majority of Uruguayans didn't accept it. But few think this postponement means the project is forever shelved.

Matilde Campodonico/AP
The Uruguayan Matilde Campodonico is seen in Montevideo, Uruguay, Thursday, in November. Last week Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, told Parliament to postpone the vote on 'state as dealer' approach to drug regulation.

Uruguay has been on the vanguard of drug policy reform in the Americas, proposing a state regulatory market for the cultivation and consumption of marijuana. (See our cover on “Latin America reinventing the War on Drugs” here).

But last week the project’s No. 1 proponent – and perhaps the globe’s most trailblazing reformer – Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, told Parliament to postpone the vote.

President Mujica always said he would not go forward with the proposal if a majority of Uruguayans did not accept it. And a new poll by the firm Cifra shows 64 percent of those surveyed remain opposed.

“Don’t pass a law because it has a majority in Parliament,” the president was quoted as saying in the local press. “The majority has to be in the streets.”

His words will generate a cheer from those opposed to such a radical rethink of the “war on drugs,” from United States drug officials to functionaries at the United Nations.

But few think it means the project has been forever shelved, including those who don't explicitly favor it. In fact, Pablo Stratta, who is the secretary of the Mothers of the Plaza, an organization that fights against drug addiction, says that the polls do not reflect that people are necessarily against Mujica’s project but that it is simply not their top priority – an opinion his organization shares.

“Before we talk about legalizing any substance, whether it’s marijuana or any other, we have to start talking about addiction from a health perspective,” Mr. Stratta says. “There are many other problems to be talking about, such as the families of drug addicts, or the number of addicts living on the streets.”

Still, the news surprised those who support the increasingly bold moves around drug reform. Many proponents have looked at Uruguay’s proposal as a model for the globe; from new ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado that make recreational marijuana use legal, to presidents in Mexico and Colombia calling for new solutions to the US “war on drugs.” 

Martin Jelsma, a foremost drug policy reform proponent at the Transnational Institute, was attending a drug reform meeting in Bangkok when he read an article insinuating that Mr. Mujica’s motive in delaying the parliamentary vote on the subject stemmed from doubt.

He called his colleagues from the Uruguayan drug commission, where he is an adviser. And he says he, like Mr. Stratta, is convinced that it will pass in the future – the timing is just not right.  

"There have been several other quite controversial and difficult issues to deal with,” Mr. Jelsma says, including abortion and gay rights.

“And there was still the clear hope from the president’s side that this project would be carried through with a clearer majority of support population wise. In that context there are still deep details to sort out … like the details of the proposal, how it relates to UN treaties, legal issues,” Jelsma says.  

"I don’t have doubts myself that a good communication strategy and a good poll that does not reduce [the issue] to overly simplistic questions will show that there is a majority support for the direction in which Mujica and his government wants to go.”

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