By Luna Olavarría Gallegos, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR).
When one considers the most effective ways to transform our global atmosphere to one that is fair and just, usually what comes to mind is diplomacy, education, and cross-cultural learning, but the president of Uruguay, José “Pepe” Mujica has another idea. Mujica, who was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, calls the legalization of marijuana ”a tool for Peace and Understanding”. Through his bill, 19.172, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the consumption, cultivation, and distribution of marijuana on December 23, 2013. Although places like the Netherlands, Switzerland, and recently Colorado and Washington have legalized or decriminalized possession and cultivation, Uruguay is the first nation to legalize the whole process- from growing the plant to buying and selling its leaves. April 9 when the law becomes effective, Uruguayans 18 and over will be able to not only legally buy a maximum of 40 grams of marijuana per month, but grow up to six marijuana plants in their home, and form smoking clubs of 15 to 45 members that can grow up to 99 plants per year.
Mujica believes marijuana reform can bring on greater social change and possibly combat drug trafficking. Mujica defended the bill saying, “This is not about being free and open. It’s a logical step. We want to take users away from clandestine business. We don’t defend marijuana or any other addiction, but worse than any drug is trafficking”. By taking away part of the market, the guerilla-veteran president, who was a part of the Marxist revolutionary group, the “Tupamaros” during the 1960’s believes the activity due to drug trafficking will shrink, bringing much needed change to the entire continent. Located in the heart of South America, Uruguay, just like every other Latin American country, has strong ties to escalating drug violence and drug related issues in the Americas. A report released by Amnesty International last year noted that in Mexico alone, during the 6 years of president Calderón’s term, the response to organized drug crime left 60,000 dead and over 150,000 displaced, which agitated relations with the United States and other neighboring countries.
Mujica acknowledges the disproportionate issues due to drug violence, noting, “[Uruguay] had 80 deaths from drug-related violence last year, and only 3 or 4 deaths from drug overdoses. So what is worse: drug trafficking, or drug consumption?” According to the Responsible Regulation Coalition, eighty-five percent of illegal drug users in Uruguay only consume marijuana, which means the trafficking of illegal drugs in Uruguay will decrease exponentially with the establishment of the new law, in which the government can track the majority of marijuana sold and bought.
Although the bill passed by the minimum votes needed, there is pressure against it, most recently with the United Nations condemning the bill because of its blatant disregard for the universally agreed and internationally endorsed United Nations treaty. However, according to a report published in May by Uruguayan paper, “El Observador”, 74 percent of the population support marijuana use for medicinal purposes, while almost 25 percent support legalization. This number increases to 80 percent in support of the buying and selling of marijuana when the term “responsible regulation” is used instead of legalization, a phrase coined by a pro-legalization group in Uruguay.
Before the law goes into effect in the next few weeks, there is a lot to plan, including deciding what type of cannabis to grow, who will grow it, and at what price it will be sold. Although Mujica has acknowledged the existence of the inevitable black market, he believes that by making sure the marijuana sold in pharmacies or “cannabis clubs” is of higher quality and lower price, the need for secret drug trade will be reduced. To ensure traceability of the legal strain of marijuana, social organizations have been exploring the best way to produce competitively priced marijuana while preventing international companies from taking over the activity. An expert from an organization known as Proderechos explains that most of the illegal trade into Uruguay currently comes from the neighboring country of Paraguay, and because of the high costs of security, transportation, and protection of merchandise, the product is more expensive. In addition, it is packaged with toxic additives like ammonia to keep the plants from drying out during shipment.
Currently, several different bodies are working together with Uruguay to develop different strains of high quality marijuana. One of these groups is a California-based organization known as Project CBD. Project CBD is committed to defending cannabis with higher levels of CBD (known for its medicinal properties), and lower levels of THC (the chemical found in cannabis that is known to give hallucinations and mind-altering properties). Pairing up with the Uruguayan government, Project CBD is in the process of giving its horticultural and technological expertise of the Uruguayan Growers Federation.
Hopefully within the next few years, the world can see how this new law will manifest itself in the connected global sphere. This Uruguayan experiment will be one of the key components to whether or not the rest of the world continues with a trend towards legalization and what this trend means for drug trafficking and related violence.