Lining up to buy legal marijuana at a pharmacy on Wednesday morning in Montevideo, Uruguay.
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — The rules are a bit of a buzzkill. Drug users must officially register with the government. Machines will scan buyers’ fingerprints at every purchase, and there are strict quotas to prevent overindulgence.
But when Uruguay’s marijuana legalization law takes full effect on Wednesday, getting high will take a simple visit to the pharmacy.
As American states legalize marijuana and governments in the hemisphere rethink the fight against drugs, Uruguay is taking a significant step further: It is the first nation in the world to fully legalize the production and sale of marijuana for recreational use.
“The great responsibility we have in Uruguay is to show the world that this system of freedom with regulation works better than prohibition,” said Eduardo Blasina, the founder of the Montevideo Cannabis Museum.
The final stage of Uruguay’s marijuana law comes as voters, lawmakers and courts across the Americas are increasingly leaning toward regulation and away from prohibition. Supporters of the shift say this tiny South American nation, which has low crime, a high standard of living and political stability, is now an ideal laboratory for what the future of drug policy in the region could look like.
Uruguay Considers Legalizing Marijuana to Stop Traffickers JULY 29, 2012
“This follows from increasing momentum by leaders in Latin America in calling for alternatives to the war on drugs,” said Hannah Hetzer, an analyst at the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors decriminalization. “What’s so important about this is it takes a debate about the need for alternatives and provides an actual proposal for an actual policy.”
But the law has been contentious for many Uruguayans. The thorniest part of it — establishing a system for the state-controlled production and sale of marijuana — took years to work out. Sales at pharmacies start on Wednesday.
Protesters in Montevideo in May called for faster application of the law regulating the production and sale of marijuana.
Government officials worried that allowing a cannabis scene like the one in Amsterdam would make Uruguay a pariah among neighboring countries wary about legalization. So they developed an onerous registration process and ruled out marketing the country as a mecca for pot tourism. Under the law, only Uruguayan citizens and legal permanent residents are allowed to purchase or grow pot.
The government limits how much people can buy each week. And in an effort to undercut drug traffickers, it is setting the price below black market rates, charging roughly $13 dollars for 10 grams, enough for about 15 joints, advocates say. The law also bars advertising and sets aside a percentage of proceeds from commercial sales to pay for addiction treatment and public awareness campaigns about the risks of drug use.
“These are measures designed to help people who are already users without encouraging others who don’t consume,” said Alejandro Antalich, the vice president of the Center of Pharmacies in Uruguay, an industry group. “If this works as planned, other countries could adopt it as a model.”
One of the main architects of Uruguay’s pot legalization law was Sebastián Sabini, a scrappy lawmaker who introduced a bill in 2011 as a newly elected member of Congress from the leftist Broad Front coalition, the political force in power since 2004. Mr. Sabini, 36, who says he is an occasional pot smoker, framed the legalization as a matter of social justice.
“The sectors that bear the brunt of drug policies are the poorest ones,” he said. “The ones who are sent to jail are the poor people.”
That rationale resonated with the president at the time, José Mujica, a former guerrilla leader and political prisoner who championed other contentious policies, including the legalization of same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of abortion. By legalizing the production and sale of marijuana, Mr. Mujica reasoned, Uruguay stood to drive drug traffickers out of business.
“Worse than drug addiction is drug trafficking,” Mr. Mujica said in a 2014 interview with laSexta, a Spanish news network.
Uruguay’s law has been rolled out in phases. After its passage in December 2013, users who registered with the government were allowed to grow as many as six plants at home for personal use. To date, nearly 7,000 people have done so. The legislation also allowed “clubs” of as many as 45 people to operate grow houses with 99 plants for members’ personal use.
Checking cannabis plants inside a grow room at a club in Montevideo this week.
For commercial sales, some pharmacy executives offered to run the distribution, noting they already had mechanisms to control the disbursement of powerful medications. While that may not seem particularly relevant for the recreational sale of marijuana, it fit the government’s vision for a framework that would allow, but not promote, marijuana use.
While several pharmacists were eager to become pot dealers, some were adamantly opposed.
Juan José Rodríguez, who has run an independent pharmacy with his wife here in the capital, Montevideo, for 17 years, said the law put Uruguay on a dangerous course.
“If you legalize marijuana, do you then legalize cocaine, ecstasy?” he said. Since the law passed, Mr. Rodríguez said, he smells pot everywhere he goes.
“Before, marijuana smokers smoked somewhat discreetly because it was something that society frowned upon, it wasn’t allowed, you knew you were doing something that wasn’t legal,” he said. “Now people smoke with absolute ease.”
That’s just as it should be, argued Martín Morón, the trombonist of La Abuela Coca, a popular band in Uruguay, who is a registered pot grower and habitual smoker. During his youth, Mr. Morón said, buying marijuana meant wading into sketchy parts of town, which often felt unsafe and unseemly.
That has changed drastically, he said. When a teenage neighbor stole the marijuana plants growing on his patio a few months ago, Mr. Morón did something that few pot growers would have thought possible in the past: He called the cops to report the theft.
“After years and years hiding, I couldn’t believe I let the cops in to inspect what remained of my plants,” he said, laughing.
During the years Uruguay spent methodically rolling out its marijuana law, legalization advocates made gains in several other countries in the hemisphere.
The debate started to shift as former Latin American presidents began to argue that the Washington-led war on drugs had failed. The international community, they said, needed to allow countries to come up with drug policies aimed at meeting each country’s challenges, emphasizing addiction treatment and reducing mass incarceration. As a handful of American states legalized marijuana, Latin American presidents felt emboldened to put legalization on the table.
“How does one explain to a Colombian peasant in a rural community in the southwest of the country that he will be prosecuted under criminal charges for growing marijuana plants, while a young entrepreneur in Colorado finds his or her legal recreational marijuana business booming?” President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia wrote in a 2016 op-ed in The Guardian.
In 2013, Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala called for a United Nations special session with the intent of softening international narcotics policy agreements. While the session, held in 2016, did not lead to major breakthroughs, several countries have begun taking action on their own.
Colombia in recent years has embraced a medical marijuana industry. Mexico’s Supreme Court in 2015 dealt a blow to the country’s drug laws by ruling that individuals had a right to grow marijuana for personal use. Medical marijuana bills have been debated in Argentina and Costa Rica this year. Jamaica legalized marijuana for medical, religious and scientific use in 2015. Canada is expected to allow the sale of marijuana for recreational use starting in 2018.
As support for decriminalization grew at home and in the region, the Obama administration took a relatively lenient approach. The Trump White House has yet to articulate a broad foreign policy approach to narcotics, but advocates for legalization are wary.
“We don’t see any champions for our cause,” said Ms. Hetzer, the analyst. “We’re very concerned in general that the momentum around criminal justice reform and the effort to reduce mass incarceration is slipping.”
But Washington’s views on drug policy appear to carry less weight than ever these days, even in countries that have traditionally been allies.
“Today, what the United States says has never mattered less,” said Mr. Blasina, the museum founder. “We don’t see its president as a reasonable individual whose opinion is worth anything.”
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