FLORIDA URUGUAY – Uruguay is about to go where no country has gone before by legalizing the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, with the left-of-center government regulating all facets of the trade.
The initiative runs sharply counter to the Obama administration’s anti-drug policies, which criminalize the use of marijuana, heroin and cocaine and rely on tough interdiction tactics to stop the flow of drugs from Latin America.
But Julio Rey is eagerly preparing for the day when he and his friends can form a cannabis club to grow marijuana in the lot next to his home in Florida, a sleepy farming town 100 km north of the capital, Montevideo.
“To be a grower, once this is up and running, will be something like being a sommelier,” said Rey, 38, who already has eight budding plants he lovingly tends in two specially lighted cabinets.
Under a bill approved by the lower house of Congress and facing a Senate vote in weeks, Uruguayans will be able to grow up to six plants in their homes. Cooperatives of up to 45 members will be able to cultivate as many as 99 plants for their own use.
Growers in places such as this rural town would also likely produce for the larger market, selling their harvest to the government. The drug would be supplied to pharmacies, the only retail outlets allowed to sell to individual buyers. Users will have to sign up in a federal registry, and it will be illegal to sell pot to children or foreigners.
“This proposal is in line with Uruguayan culture and the role the state has historically had in regulating social vice,” said Sebastian Sabini, a congressman who led the campaign for the bill. “We’re going to set prices, limit what is produced, prohibit advertising. It’s planned and controlled and regulated by the state, where there are private players but the state sets the rules.”
What the government of President Jose “Pepe” Mujica is advocating — which will surely become law because of his movement’s comfortable majority in the Senate — will make this country of just 3.4 million people a trailblazer. Under Mujica, a 78-year-old former guerrilla, Uruguay has adopted a raft of liberal policies on issues from same-sex marriage to abortion.
The Uruguay proposal is similar to the law in one U.S. state, Colorado, where users will soon be able to buy marijuana at licensed stores and grow a small amount at home. And the Netherlands long ago legalized consumption, with smokers enjoying joints in special cafes. But cultivation there is banned, and no other country has moved to make the production and mass distribution of marijuana legal.
Julio Calzada, director of the government’s National Drug Board, said the objective is to dismantle a black market that has been supplying Uruguay’s 25,000 habitual users with cheap marijuana smuggled in from Paraguay. Although this country is among the safest in the region, it has seen a slight spike in homicides and robberies that has generated a perception of insecurity among Uruguayans.
Calzada said the new system would shrink the illegal market for marijuana, valued at $20 million to $30 million, and the amount of crime associated with it. “People traffic drugs to make money, and we are taking that away,” said Calzada. “We’re not saying that we’re going to end the black market. We’re saying we’re going to seriously upset it.”
Uruguay’s new drug strategy is a challenge to the U.S. counternarcotics strategy. President Barack Obama has said that legalization of drugs is not a workable recourse, even as some leaders in Latin America have called for a new policy in the face of soaring numbers of dead in the drug war in Mexico and Central America.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said that while Uruguayans can decide which drug policies are most appropriate, the Uruguayan government “has the obligation to comply with its international treaty commitments.” She was referring to the 1961 U.N. convention on drug control, which prohibits the distribution, possession and use of marijuana and other drugs.
Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, said Uruguay is taking a huge risk. “I think they should understand that they’re on the brink of creating a public-health crisis,” said Sabet. He is co-founder of an advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, that proposes education and treatment for users but not jail sentences or legalization of drugs.
He said the Uruguayan bill’s ban on selling marijuana to young people and foreigners will ensure that the black market will continue to operate. “You’ll have generations of Uruguayans growing up seeing marijuana as a rite of passage to adulthood,” Sabet said.
The government has not adequately analyzed the implications of the bill, said Veronica Alonso, an opposition congresswoman in Uruguay. She said she has doubts that the measure will cut crime. “We’re a laboratory where we don’t know the consequences,” she said. “There’s no scientific evidence that says the narcotraffickers will say, OK, we can’t operate in Uruguay, we’ll go somewhere else.”
What is clear is that legalizing the marijuana trade will bring people who grow marijuana into the open. Marijuana use has been decriminalized here since the 1970s.
Among the most dedicated advocates of legalizing marijuana is Juan Vaz of the Uruguayan Association of Cannabis Studies, a group that examines everything from the tricks of growing the perfect plant to the ways in which the illegal trade works. Vaz, 46, calls himself a “guerrilla planter,” cultivating in secrecy to stay a step ahead of the authorities. He has paid the price, having been arrested for his hobby.
With legalization, he said, cultivators here will be able to breed what he calls a “marvelous plant” that will offer a better smell and taste and a more potent high than the Paraguayan product, which he says is cultivated with little attention to detail and then pressed into bales that damage the quality.
“If done right, this product will be so good that customers will pay two times or three times what they paid on the black market,” said Vaz, speaking in an apartment that held all manner of supplies to grow marijuana, from special fertilizers to peat moss.
The government is hoping that marijuana produced through a regulated system, though, won’t be so expensive.
Indeed, Calzada told the Montevideo newspaper El Pais that the price set by the government would be the same as that offered by Paraguayan dealers: $1 a gram, the equivalent of what he called a thick joint. Under the law, individuals can buy up to 40 grams a month.
In the town of Florida, Rey said he is giddily awaiting the go-ahead to plant next to his house.
On a recent day, Rey walked in the overgrown lot next to his home and spoke enthusiastically about the freedom he will feel growing 2-meter-tall plants of cannabis sativa and its cousin, cannabis indica. He said he and his friends would surely hold barbecues to deal with the inevitable munchies that come with smoking dope.
“As you know, that’s one of the inconveniences,” Rey said with a laugh. “You want to eat everything you can get your hands on.”