Uruguay Announces Unprecedented Plan for Legal, Regulated Marijuana Markets

In the latest challenge from Latin America to drug war orthodoxy, on June 20, 2012, the Uruguayan government unveiled a proposal that, if adopted by the country’s legislature, would create legal, government-controlled markets for marijuana, as part of a broader strategy to improve citizen security and focus greater attention on the use of harder drugs. The market would be highly regulated, with strict age limits and prohibitions on public use. The proposal would allow registered users to purchase small amounts of marijuana cigarettes through state-run or sanctioned facilities. The revenue generated would be put towards treatment programs for problematic drug users. Higher sanctions for some drug-related offenses are also included in the proposed plan.

Uruguayan Defense Minister, Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro, told reporters that “We’re shifting toward a stricter state control of the distribution and production of this drug. It’s a fight on both fronts: against drug consumption and drug trafficking. We think that the prohibition of some drugs is creating more problems to society than the drug itself.” In addition, by creating legal, regulated markets, money would be taken out of the hands of criminals and put into state coffers. Some estimates put the value of the illegal marijuana market in Uruguay at about US$75 million per year.

Following a period of public debate, the government will formally present a bill to the Uruguayan Congress. Opposition has quickly emerged from diverse political perspectives. Draft legislation is already pending that would allow for cultivation of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Many in the local marijuana policy reform movement prefer such an approach, including the adoption of “cannabis clubs” such as those in Spain, and reject the idea of a state monopoly on marijuana cultivation and sale. Government officials have indicated a willingness to consider such initiatives down the road, but insist that state control is needed to ensure strict control when the initiative is launched.

By far the most widely used illicit drug and the most ubiquitously produced, marijuana poses comparatively smaller risks than many other substances (including legal drugs). A prohibitionist approach to marijuana causes enormous harm to those caught up in the criminal justice system. More tolerant attitudes toward marijuana in many countries, including the United States, suggest that sooner or later, local, state, and national governments will begin the shift toward legal, regulated markets, and thereby reduce some of the proceeds that currently enrich criminal organizations. Uruguay is laudably the first country to announce officially an effort to move in that direction.

Coletta A. Youngers is an Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).