Weed all about it

Uruguay's cannabis law
The Economist (UK)
Wednesday, December 11, 2013

TheEconomist“A critical turning point in the failed war against drugs,” is the verdict of Martin Jelsma of the Drugs and Democracy Programme at the Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based think-tank. On December 10th Uruguay’s Senate approved a law that not only legalised marijuana use but also regulated its production and sale. Others have gone down this route before: the American states of Colorado and Washington legalised marijuana for recreational use in 2012. But Uruguay is the first country to do so.

By the middle of 2014 it will be legal for Uruguayans (but not tourists) to grow up to six of their own marijuana plants, to join members’ clubs that are authorised to grow up to 99 plants, or to purchase up to 40 grams of cannabis a month for their own use. Julio Calzada, the head of Uruguay’s National Drug Board, has said that the government will set the price of the drug at around $1 per gram, which is approximately what marijuana illegally trafficked from Paraguay costs. By keeping the price fixed at a low level, Mr Calzada hopes to push traffickers out of the market, and reduce the chances of drug-related violence.

The roots of the law lie in a June 2012 report from the Uruguayan defence ministry on how it planned to tackle rising levels of crime. One line of that 20-page document mentioned the possible legalisation and regulation of cannabis sales, saying that such a proposal “would require a legal project”. That gave the bill its initial momentum. Media attention helped keep the ball rolling. More important was the strident support of José Mujica, the country’s president, whose Broad Front party has a comfortable majority in both chambers of Uruguay’s General Assembly.

Liberalisers are ecstatic. During the debate, thousands of Uruguayans descended on the plaza in front of the legislative palace to wave flyers in the shape of cannabis leaves, smoke hookahs, and brandish banners reading: “cultivating Uruguayan freedom.”

Others are less high on the idea. Uruguay’s opposition unanimously opposed the law, but given its minority status in both chambers of the General Assembly, was powerless to halt it. A handful of worried legislators, who argue the law is unconstitutional and dangerous, are now rallying to hold a referendum. A recent survey conducted by Equipos Consultores, a polling group, suggests that 58% of Uruguayans oppose the law. But public opinion seems to be softening slightly: in a June study by the same firm, 68% disapproved the law.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the body charged with implementing United Nations drugs conventions, is also concerned. Uruguay’s law violates the 1961 Convention on Narcotics Drugs, which prohibits the production and supply of all drugs not used for medical or scientific purposes. Mr Jelsma insists the problem is with the INCB’s treaty, not Uruguay’s legislation. “Uruguay’s government is doing what it is convinced is the correct move for the health and safety of its population,” he says. “That is more important than living up to the letter of the INCB treaty.”

The Uruguayan government has been careful to stress that the law is not meant to encourage consumption. Four days before the Senate vote, Mr Mujica’s team ran an advertising campaign called “All drug consumption has risks.” One sign plastered on the side of a bus read: “Marijuana alters senses and perceptions.” Uruguay’s legalisation initiative may do the same for drugs policy as well.