Written by: Vandita
On December 10, 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana. With this move, hailed as the ‘great experiment’, the government hoped to tackle drug cartels, though the critics believed it would expose more people to drugs. In the recently concluded elections, Uruguay voted for leftist Tabare Vazquez who beat Luis Lacalle Pou in the presidential run-off. The victory is seen as reflecting public sentiment in favour of country’s legal marijuana and left government’s growing dispensary system. Whether it is a setback for those against legal marijuana is yet to be seen, the great experiment has definitely got a shot in the arm. Let’s see what legalized marijuana did to the country in the past one year…
In December last, Uruguay allowed its citizens over 18 years of age to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) marijuana per month apart from making it legal to grow and sell the drug. In an attempt to woo customers, the price was set at $1 a gram, close to the street price of illegal marijuana. Uruguayans could grow up to six plants in their houses (after signing up in a national registry) and were permitted to produce more through private grow clubs. There were more regulations in place. Sale of marijuana was required to be channelled through the federal government authorised to set up dispensaries and determine prices. It was illegal to smoke marijuana on the job as well as while driving a vehicle. There was a provision of a hefty penalty too ranging from $2 to $87 for punishing the violators. Unfortunately, the federal government has failed to set up the network of dispensaries even after one year. The National Board of Drugs said that dispensaries would now be open in March 2015.
The booming black market inspired former President José Mujica to legalize marijuana. Mujica intended to seize the market from illegal drug dealers, hence the law. He insisted that legalization would merely regulate the market that already exists and in no way encourage people to smoke weed.
Mujica was central to marijuana reform in Uruguay. “The political decision to go from total prohibition to regulation happened entirely due to the fact that Uruguay’s president today is José Mujica,” said Julio Calzada, secretary general of Uruguay’s National Drug Council. In an interview to VICE reporter Krishna Andavolu, Mujica said, “There has always been a conservative and reactive opinion that fears change. The sad part is that a man who is almost 80 (pointing to himself) has to come and propose a youthful openness to a conservative world that makes you want to cry”.
Activists, however, see a problem with some of the regulations like restricting the amount of marijuana that one could grow – six plants to be precise. Alejandro Gianades told VICE that the limit is arbitrary as potency of each plant varies as per its size and quality. A healthy plant with many leaves and a high THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) level is as good as many emaciated plants.
In order to grow more – 99 plants to be precise – users can join/form a cannabis growing club. 99 plants can produce large amount of premium marijuana if managed by an experienced marijuana farmer. However, running these kinds of services is very complicated and requires a lot of money. The first club to register in Montevideo, The Association of Cannabis Studies of Uruguay, had around 40 members who each paid $300 to join along with a monthly membership fee of $65. Uruguay’s law puts a cap on 45 members per pot-growing club. Laura Blanco, president of Association of Cannabis Studies of Uruguay, feels this is an expensive proposition when it comes to sharing the cost burden, above all the fixed costs as the cap makes it difficult to grow weed cheaply.
With no dispensaries open even after one year of legalization, many Uruguayans are indeed growing their own marijuana. Juan Manuel Varela, owner of Urugrow, a dispensary in Montevideo, told the Globe and Mail that his customer base had grown and turnover doubled since the legalization law was passed.
Still, there are many marijuana users in Uruguay who don’t/may not want to grow the plant in their backyard just to avoid going through all the trouble of cultivating it. They have two options: register with the government to get limited supply of legal but relatively expensive and mediocre marijuana, or continue buying it illegally. So how many will choose to buy/grow legal and say goodbye to black market will make or break the great Uruguayan experiment.
Julio Calzada, one of the architects of Uruguayan drug revolution, believes that legally available marijuana will be more helpful in fighting the illegal marijuana trade than cracking down on dealers.
In an interview with Reason in 2013, Calzasa said, “In Uruguay, there are about 120,000 daily-to-occasional cannabis users. At present, these people are buying from criminals and strengthening local mafia. If the government can take control of that market, criminal organizations will lose their main source of income”.
He added, “With the infamous Plan Colombia, the U.S. thought it could pulverize drugs with an iron fist. But the only thing it achieved was to spread organized crime across the entire continent. That youths in our slums are now smoking cocaine paste is collateral damage of Plan Colombia. It’s the balloon theory; wherever you squeeze a balloon the air just goes somewhere else. After half a century of disastrous results we’re choosing to embark on a different path”.
Calzada believed that regulation can be an extremely powerful political tool and can effectively influence public health. “In 2005 we regulated the tobacco industry in a similar way. Since then, use among young people has fallen from 32 to 12 per cent,” he said.
14% Uruguayans, between the age of 16 and 64, use marijuana. By controlling and regulating the marijuana trade, Calzada thought “government could lower the marijuana smoking rate as well as prevent users from smoking prensado paraguayo, a compressed blend of leaves, glue, oil, faeces, chemicals and so on. The mix is much more harmful to health than pure cannabis”.
When Vazquez assumes office on March 10, 2015, he will have to decide on how to implement the sale of state-controlled marijuana to registered consumers at pharmacies. He’s previously been sceptical of government distribution of weed, reports the Guardian:
When Vazquez passed tough anti-tobacco legislation, including a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, risk warnings covering 80% of cigarette packs and a ban on advertising and sponsorships, international tobacco giant Philip Morris proceeded to sue Uruguay. An arbitration ruling is still pending before the World Bank. “Uruguay is not afraid of Philip Morris,” Vazquez proclaimed only a few months ago.
Observers expect Vazquez to be just as tough on marijuana as he has been on tobacco. “Natural organisms do not require drugs,” he said during the election campaign, saying drugs should only be taken under medical prescription. “This path proposed by President Mujica and that I agree with, might be the solution – but it might not be”.
The impact of the ‘great experiment’ can already be felt; the country need not wait till March next. In Montevideo, people openly smoke weed without any fear of harassment by the police. For these users and those who propagated marijuana reform, passing of the law is a major milestone which was unthinkable till a few years ago.