More than three years after Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize the cultivation and selling of marijuana, we know surprisingly little about how a country in which the drug is freely available will end up being run. That’s because, even though home cultivation has taken off, the plant is still not available commercially. When former Uruguayan president José Mujica instigated the project back in 2011, he envisioned marijuana beings sold in drugstores just like thousands of other products. But his successor Tavaré Vázquez, the current president, is much less enthusiastic about legalization, as are the owners of most drugstores around the country. This has emboldened some opponents to predict that the ambitious legalization program will be an utter failure.
Mujica and his supporters presented a number of strong arguments to promote legalization. The first posited that legal marijuana would take away a source of influence and revenue from the drug cartels that have spread all over Latin America fomenting crime and terror. Legalization would also eliminate the need for marijuana users to resort to illegal means to acquire the drug. Uruguayan law enforcement had become worried that dealers were selling a cocaine-based paste (called pasta base) instead of marijuana in order to get unwitting users hooked on the stronger and more dangerous drug. To critics who countered that people should simply not break the law, Mujica responded that marijuana use is simply a fact that will not go away and should be normalized for practical reasons.
The second major argument for legalization is fiscal. The government, argued proponents, spends too much money pursuing dealers and supply chains, and putting marijuana users (mostly non-violent) in prison. Moreover, selling the drug as a legal product would mean an increase in tax revenues from sales, which could be used for all manner of projects. The experience of the state of Colorado in the United States, which legalized marijuana in 2012, is telling. Since making the drug available through privately owned dispensaries, the state has collected hundreds of millions of dollars a year in taxes.
Opponents cannot accept facilitating a potentially dangerous activity simply to make money off of users. They compare the legalization of marijuana to that of gambling or prostitution, and argue forcefully that wrong is wrong regardless of how much money goes into government coffers.
The law, which was passed by the Uruguay’s senate and house of representatives in December 2013 and put into effect the following April, decrees that individuals who wish to grow marijuana in their homes may do so as long as they register with a newly created supervisory and enforcement agency. Home growers are permitted to have up to six plants in their home, and the annual yield of the plants cannot be over 480 grams (about 17 ounces) per year. Thousands of Uruguayans moved quickly to take advantage. As of late last year, the official number of registered home growers is just under 6,000 households. However, officials assume that the number of actual growers is much higher, maybe 10,000 or even more. Home growers have begun to form “cannabis clubs”, through which they smoke socially and exchange product. Authorities are still trying to find ways to insure that participants in these associations keep to the prescribed limits on individual possession.
What effect have these developments had on marijuana consumption in Uruguay? Studies show that the percentage of young people who admitted to smoking the drug rose from 12% to 17% between 2011 and 2014. This is a significant increase, though it’s hard to know whether the results simply show that teenagers are less afraid to admit their drug use. A survey that follows marijuana use among people aged 15-65 has found that the increase of usage between 2011 and 2015 followed the historical pattern that was established before legalization. In other words, more availability has not translated into increased use.
But would this change if anyone could buy marijuana at the corner pharmacy? Nobody knows yet. Only in April of this year, a full three and a half years after legalization, was a deal announced which will supposedly bring commercial marijuana to Uruguayan retail. According to the legalization policy, Uruguayans of legal age would be able to buy up to 40 grams of marijuana per month (about 1.4 ounces) for about $1. Current president Vázquez, a cancer specialist who during his last tenure as president fought hard to reduce tobacco consumption in his country, considers that the health risks of such availability are just too big. Not surprisingly, his administration has moved slowly towards implementing the new regulations.
Another force pushing against proliferation have been pharmacy owners around the country. A report in June of last year found that only about 50 of the more than 1,200 drugstores in the country were willing to sell marijuana to the general public. For some the concern is moral and religious. They simply believe that smoking marijuana is wrong. But many others have more practical concerns, particularly security. There is concern that criminal gangs might try to rob transports moving stocks of the drug around to providers, or that the pharmacies themselves will become more attractive targets to criminals. Although Uruguay’s crime rate is much lower than those of its neighbors, business owners have legitimate concern about the safety of their lives and property.
The progressive policies of the Mujica administration, which beside marijuana included also the legalization of abortion and gay marriage, attracted worldwide attention. Legalization of marijuana also gave a boost to tourism, as Uruguayan seaside resorts have worked to make the drug easily available in a safe environment. Whether the increased revenue is worth it, or will continue, is still an open question. There are calls in other countries in South America to legalize, and it is very common in the region for successful policies to spread from nation to nation.
Resistance to marijuana legalization is, to a large degree, a generational issue. As people born in the 1980s and after come to take a more prominent role in national politics, support for legalization will come to dominate the mainstream and the debate will ultimately fizzle. As bans on tobacco use will continue to proliferate, cigarette smoke will more and more be replaced by the heavier, sweet smelling odor of burning cannabis. Uruguay should be an excellent test case for the social and economic effects of this transition, but to see the full effects we will have to wait a bit longer.