Uruguay candidate stirs up controversy over marijuana registries

A candidate in next month's presidential election controversially said he would use registries of marijuana buyers and sellers in Uruguay – where the substance is state-regulated – for drug rehabilitation purposes. That could dissuade users from registering with the state in the first place, critics say.

Andres Stapff/Reuters
Presidential candidate for the Uruguayan party Frente Amplio Tabare Vazquez (c.) arrives at the Supreme court of justice in Montevideo August 29. Uruguayans will go to the polls on October 26 to elect President and members of the Parliament.

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The Uruguayan presidential candidate favored by drug policy reform advocates, ex-President Tabare Vazquez, has presented his rehabilitative interpretation of what marijuana regulation would look like if he wins the upcoming elections, irritating some cannabis activists and undermining users’ faith in the state registry.

In an interview with Radio Rural on Sept. 18, Mr. Vazquez proposed to use the registry of marijuana buyers and cultivators created by the law as a way to expose them to drug treatment. His remarks were widely circulated in local press, as well as by news agency Reuters.

As newspaper El Observador reported, Vazquez framed the marijuana law as a kind of rehabilitative measure. He told journalists:

[The law] doesn't make it easier to access the drug. A kid who wants the drug is going to buy it on the black market anyway. Now, with the consumption of marijuana being regulated, he will have to buy it under certain conditions. For instance, there will be a record of drug users, and that registry of drug users, via the sale in pharmacies, will provide a greater understanding of those who are involved with drugs and will give the state the opportunity to try to rehabilitate this person at earlier stage. […] In addition it will ensure the consumption of a much purer drug than can be obtained on the black market.

As El Observador noted, Vazquez’s statement follows similar lines as a remark made last year by Health Minister Leonel Briozzo, in which the minister said that the user registry would be used to "generate specific measures to encourage users to eventually abandon consumption."

Vazquez's approach is understandable considering his medical background, as well as the law’s provisions concerning improving drug education. So far the current government appears to have prioritized the regulatory/commercial side of the law rather than preventing marijuana use. Earlier this year the National Drug Council (JND) launched a public awareness campaign aimed at increasing the perception of risks associated with drug use -- called "Every drug has risks" – but as it relied mostly on bus posters and flyers, its reach has been minimal.

Still, while increasing the risk perception associated with marijuana makes sense, logic dictates that a misguided or heavy-handed campaign on this front might be risky at this stage, as it could dissuade users from registering with the state. During the debate over the law last year, the existence of the registry itself caused some controversy, with several pundits calling it invasive, and more than one opposition lawmaker framing it as a violation of individual liberties.

To reassure these critics, the bill was amended to state that the registries of potential buyers, home-growers, and cannabis club members will be "sensitive data," which in Uruguay means that they cannot be revealed "without the individual’s express written consent." Vazquez's talk of the state using the registry to "rehabilitate" users, then, seems to contradict the spirit of this provision.

And setting aside the fact that the registry doesn't provide for a method of detecting problematic use among home-growers or club members, Vazquez's remarks seem to ignore the fact that the regulatory guidelines released in May already somewhat restrict the consumption rate of marijuana. While the law established that users who wish to purchase the drug in pharmacies could buy 40 grams per month, the regulations limit this to a maximum of 10 grams per week.

Julio Rey, president of the Federation of Cannabis Growers of Uruguay (FCU), was nonplussed by Vazquez's remark. In a subsequent interview with this author, Mr. Rey said the candidate had shown "a great lack of understanding" of the law and its implementation, and hopes that it will not "worry" those interested in signing on to the registry. According to the FCU head, Vazquez also clashed with the current administration’s own policies. "The state established 40 grams as the limit for acquiring marijuana, and considers anything above 1.5 grams per day to be "problematic use.'" Rey said. "Where does it say that someone who legally consumes 40 grams per month should be rehabilitated?"

This post was originally written for an e-mail list of policy experts interested in tracking the politics of marijuana reform in Uruguay.

Geoffrey Ramsey is a part-time researcher for the Open Society Foundation's Latin America Program and a freelance writer. Any views or opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author.

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