Uruguay marijuana bill slowly gains public support

The bill is far from majority approval, but if support continues to grow and it passes, this could provide an important look at how marijuana legalization impacts organized crime. 

Matilde Campodonico/AP/File
A marijuana grower shows plants he is cultivating with some friends in Montevideo, Uruguay, Nov. 14, 2012.

While public opinion remains largely opposed to marijuana regulation in Uruguay, a new poll shows support for the bill is growing, especially among likely voters for the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition, which could be good news for countries hoping to follow Uruguay's drug policy example.

On Sept. 2, leading Uruguayan pollster Cifra published the results of a new survey on marijuana regulation carried out from Aug. 15 – 24, which brought good news for supporters of the bill. The polling firm found that 61 percent of the country was opposed to the measure, a five-point drop since it was first proposed by President Jose Mujica in July 2012. The latest poll confirms that there has been a definite, albeit slight, downward trend in disapproval of the law in the past year.

The Cifra poll also found that, while conservative Colorado and National Party voters remain overwhelmingly against it, support for the bill has grown among individuals who identify as FA voters. For the first time since the bill was presented, more FA supporters are on board with marijuana regulation (47 percent) than against it (40 percent).

InSight Crime Analysis

The new Cifra poll is good news for advocates of marijuana regulation in Uruguay. It provides Regulacion Responsable – the coalition of civil society groups which has banded together to support the bill – with a useful narrative to present to legislators sitting on the fence about the initiative. Although it is expected to face a far easier time in the Senate, with no FA senators likely to oppose it, some are sure to have private doubts about the wisdom of supporting such an unpopular initiative. They may have fewer qualms with a relative majority of their party's supporters now backing the bill.

However, the poll did not bring all positive news for supporters. Alarmingly, some two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) said they would "probably" or "definitely" sign a petition to hold a referendum on the bill. Under Uruguayan law, if the opposition presents signatures from 2 percent of the electorate (roughly 52,000 people) in January or February of next year, a preliminary vote on whether to hold a referendum could take place in March or April. If over 25 percent of the electorate participates in that vote, the marijuana regulation law could face a referendum in July 2014.

Fortunately for regulation advocates, the odds of this happening are very slim. Although the opposition was able to gather enough signatures to trigger a preliminary vote in June on whether to hold a referendum on a controversial abortion decriminalization law passed last year, this ultimately failed. Only 8.8 percent of the electorate turned out, despite the fact that over 50 percent of those polled had said they would participate. If the opposition could not mobilize enough people to come out against abortion, a highly emotional issue, it is unlikely that they will be able to do so for marijuana, and the Frente Amplio is counting on this.

That the bill is unlikely to be removed via a referendum is also good news for international actors looking to Uruguay to provide a new drug policy model. Lawmakers in Mexico, for instance, have directly cited Uruguay's initiative as the inspiration for a bill that would center around authorizing membership clubs and cultivation for personal use.

If the bill survives the opposition's attempts to strike it from Uruguay's lawbooks, it will also provide an interesting laboratory to examine the effect of marijuana legalization on insecurity and organized crime. The Uruguayan law will regulate every aspect of the illicit market for the drug (production, sale and distribution), which currently brings in around million to criminal groups. If it succeeds in lowering thecountry's rising crime rate, it will likely fuel the arguments of those calling for more relaxed marijuana laws in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, like Colombia and Guatemala.

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