Uruguay stunned the world when it became the first country to fully legalise cannabis use, cultivation and sale in December 2013. However, the issue had been brewing for decades prior, with a committed grassroots movement seizing on Uruguay’s traditionally liberal attitude to social policy to push for law reform. This article will outline the build-up to Uruguay’s cannabis legalisation, the domestic and international response, and how the policy is functioning in the three years since it was legislated.
To establish the social and political context surrounding the development of cannabis law reform in Uruguay, it is important to acknowledge Uruguay’s long-standing position as a ‘vanguard’ of social reform in the southern hemisphere . For instance, Uruguay was the first Latin American nation to give women the right to vote, is one of only two countries in the region to decriminalise abortion, and is the first country in Latin America to legalise same-sex civil unions. When the United States declared a war on drugs in 1971, Uruguay and most other Latin American nations committed to it, however Uruguay maintained a relatively liberal stance towards drug use . In 1974, whilst under civic-military dictatorship rule, Uruguay actually decriminalised the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use, allowing an individual to avoid jail if they possessed an amount below the stipulated threshold. This breaking with the US-imposed hardline stance established Uruguay as something of a maverick nation in a region heavily influenced by its northern neighbour.
Despite the decriminalisation of minor drug possession, cannabis cultivation and sale remained illegal. This led to a dedicated pro-cannabis movement within the country, which only strengthened when the Uruguay returned to democratic rule in 1985. Activists now had more freedom and space to air their grievances . In 1987 the Special Commission on Drug Addiction was created, with the aim of thoroughly reviewing Uruguayan drug policy. In 1999 the Uruguayan government watered down its drug laws, reducing mandatory minimum sentences for cannabis production and sale and providing alternatives to prison for low-risk offenders, including to serve their time in rehabilitation centres. Crucially, the term ‘minimal quantity’ was changed to ‘reasonable quantity’ when describing an amount for personal use, allowing judges discretion to determine appropriate outcomes on a case by case basis .
As Uruguayan policy was evolving, cannabis use was becoming more common amongst its citizenry, increasing from 3% to 12.2% between 1998 and 2006. Alongside this was an increase in pressure for change, particularly from younger Uruguayans frustrated with the contradiction - that they could use small amounts of cannabis yet were unable to legally purchase or grow it.
Drug-related conflict in South America increased during the early 2000s, particularly due to a greater presence of cocaine in the region. Restrictions on precursor chemicals and increased law enforcement heightened the risks of shipping cocaine into the United States, so Central and parts of South America became more important as a transit and storage area [5 ALSO 6]. Despite being one of the safest countries in the Americas, Uruguayan citizens experienced heightened insecurity about their borders during this time, particularly as violence and crime between drug cartels began to increase elsewhere in the region. Meantime, the Uruguayan government had concerns of its own. Due to a ban on cannabis cultivation and sale within the country, users were forced to illegally purchase cannabis from Paraguay, putting them into contact with drug dealers distributing ‘pasta base’, a crude, crack-like form of cocaine . Violence did increase in Uruguay during this time, much of it attributed to pasta base use . Discussions around the legalisation of cannabis cultivation and sale grew in intensity, as the government pondered whether full legalisation of cannabis would stem the flow of drugs like pasta base into Uruguay.
Meanwhile, a paradigm shift of sorts was occurring internationally. Campaigns were growing in the US states of Colorado and Washington for a popular ballot to fully legalise recreational cannabis, and these were eventually realised. The Global Commission on Drug Policy officially declared the war on drugs a failure, and that for too long governments and law-makers have failed to properly scrutinise the root causes for “the global drug problem” . More regionally, the 2012 Summit of the Americas saw a similar recognition, amid calls for alternative policies to end the drug war.
Uruguay’s President, Jose Mujica, saw an opportunity to finally implement full legalisation, as part of a broader policy to address the general insecurity felt by the electorate. Dubbed the ‘Strategy for Life and Coexistence’, Mujica’s plan outlined ways to improve the quality of life of Uruguayan citizens, as well as address crime and other social problems . The bill was fairly vague - calling on the state to assume control of cannabis production and distribution, yet it did not outline a specific way to do so. This drew criticism from opposition parties, and the proposal was eventually modified to stipulate three types of cultivation: private (in the home), collective (via ‘cannabis clubs’), and state-licensed (via registered pharmacies). While Mujica’s Broad Front party continued to amend and delay the bill in order to gather necessary congressional votes, a pro-regulation civil society movement comprised of local and international civil rights and drug policy groups - the ‘Responsible Regulation’ coalition - was simultaneously running a campaign, aiming to promote a rational, well-tested legalisation process and get the public onside . Despite these efforts, repeated surveys of Uruguayans found a majority of between 61 and 66% remained opposed to the law. Nevertheless, Congress and the Senate voted for it, and it was signed into law in December 2013.
In a nutshell, the system is as follows: The federal government assumes control of the entire cannabis market and determines prices, and all citizens and pharmacies wishing to participate, whether through buying or selling, must register via a database with the Ministry of Health , which monitors all sales, quantities, and personal details of those registered.
It is still far too early to conclude whether Uruguay’s law has achieved its aims, though emerging evidence suggests the effect is more sedate than expected, and may be largely due to the government’s slow and cautious approach to legalisation, , as well as ongoing public reticence. Though legalisation was officially enacted into law in early 2014, the process was delayed for nearly two years as the government determined a strategy to compel pharmacies to register for cannabis distribution. Considering 55% of surveyed Uruguayans who use cannabis said they would prefer to purchase it through a pharmacy, this meant a significant proportion of the cannabis-using population were unable to access the drug legally , and may have continued to turn to the black market in the meantime.
As of July 2016, only two companies had been granted permits to invest in the Uruguayan cannabis market , and only 50 out of 1,200 pharmacists in the country had registered to sell cannabis . Many are fearful of violence and security issues, particularly being targeted by drug dealers or criminal organisations angry at the erosion of their profit margins. Others believe it would be medically unprofessional to distribute cannabis, and are concerned about alienating their customer base.
The new President of Uruguay, Tabare Vazquez, has similar concerns. He is from the same political party as Jose Mujica, yet has publicly expressed reservations about the cannabis policy. As a trained oncologist, he is worried about encouraging problematic use of cannabis, and the fact that it is sold in pharmacies . Like many pharmacists, he is also concerned about a rise in violence in the country from drug cartels. Nevertheless, he has vowed to maintain implementation of the law in its current form.
Internationally, the law has been received unfavourably from certain sectors. Uruguay’s neighbours Brazil and Argentina have publicly expressed opposition, worried the law will encourage cross-border spillover . The UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has also condemned the legislation, arguing it breaches Uruguay’s international treaty obligations.
Despite these criticisms, there have been some positive measures stemming from the legislation. Uruguay enacted its law during a time when a regional shift in attitude towards drug policy is intensifying. The Organisation of American States (OAS) has called for the region to consider alternative drug policies to the current prohibitionist approach . This positions Uruguay’s bill as a pioneer for innovation within the Americas. Moreover, the US, for so long a key influencer on Latin American drug policy, no longer has an incentive to oppose cannabis legalisation both in Uruguay and internationally, considering the legislative changes that have taken place in Colorado and Washington.
For the future, a number of domestic considerations remain for the legislation, if it is to be ultimately successful. The main aim of the policy is to undercut and eventually eliminate the cannabis black market in Uruguay. However, the dominant role of the state in the legal cannabis market has deterred many, who are not comfortable with having their details on a government registry. Though the government has maintained this information will be classified, President Vazquez has previously proposed giving the registry to rehabilitation services , which could deter many non-dependent, recreational cannabis users from signing up to the legal market.
The legislation stipulates that Uruguayans may only procure cannabis via one source. This means cultivating it either at home, in a cannabis club, or purchasing it at a pharmacy. The restrictive nature of this condition may deter individuals who wish to obtain cannabis from multiple sources, and may even drive them back to the black market. Other questions that cannot yet be answered fully include whether legal cannabis will increase use among Uruguayan youth, whether the potency of legal cannabis will have an effect on whether or not individuals choose it over other, possibly illegal strains, and whether it will increase DUI arrests. Further research and monitoring in the future will determine whether this world-first policy can be used as a successful model for other nations.