November this year, Uruguay is about to make a big step in the movement to end the prohibition of drugs. It is set to become the first country to fully legalise, not just decriminalise, cannabis. All drugs have been decriminalised in Uruguay for the past 30 years. At the end of July Uruguay’s House of Deputies voted 96 to 50 in favour of a bill to legalise the production, commercialisation and distribution of cannabis.
In contrast, Holland has decriminalised cannabis for use, but not for commerce or production. The Dutch have a policy of toleration, as opposed to complete legalisation. Similarly, Portugal has decriminalised all drugs in fact; however, this means that users will not be prosecuted for possession – production and distribution are still illegal. Portugal’s decriminalisation aims to treat drug abuse as a health issue, not a criminal issue. Washington and Colorado should be congratulated for legalising cannabis, but this progress is still within state law – cannabis is still illegal on a federal level.
But Uruguay, if nothing upsets the implementation of the bill in November, will be the first country in the world to legalise cannabis. Back in July the Uruguayan President, Jose Mujica, said: “We know we are embarking on a cutting-edge experiment for the whole world.” If Uruguay can prove that legalising cannabis will, in fact, benefit the country – by reducing prison costs and generating substantial tax revenue – then other countries could follow suit. America, which already has relatively liberal cannabis laws, might realise that there is a huge economic incentive to fully legalise cannabis on a federal level. The experiment in Uruguay will hopefully highlight how wasteful and backwards the war on drugs really is.
Other South American countries, such as Colombia and Bolivia, will be carefully watching the consequences of Uruguay’s legalisation. Colombia and Bolivia are still struggling under the power and force of illegal drug cartels in their region. The government has been unable to counteract the constant violence and death resulting from cartel activity, so legalisation could be the most effective way to end their profiteering.
As with any sensible system of legalisation, there will be tight regulations set in place. The bill will allow private producers to have large-scale cannabis farms. It will also allow the home-growing of up to six plants per household, as well as ‘cannabis clubs’, where growers can band together to grow cannabis in greater quantities, so long as it is not for sale.
Cannabis consumption in Uruguay is quite high (no pun intended), especially among young people. About 4.5% of the general population smoke cannabis on a regular basis and 20% have smoked it at one point in their lives. Those who have been growing and enjoying the plant illegally will now be able to exercise their freedom in peace, and without fear of persecution. In the same year, Uruguay also legalised abortion and same-sex marriage, indicative of a general trend towards a more liberal society.
Some growers have criticised certain aspects of the law. For example, pharmacies will be in control of the distribution of cannabis at controlled prices. Consumers will also have to register in order to purchase cannabis (up to 40 grams a month) from them. The Turino “weed” brothers, who have been growing cannabis illegally in their home for years, have said that it is risky to give too much power to the multinationals. But for the time being, these are minor concerns. The bill is definitely still a cause for celebration.
The price of cannabis is set to be $2.50 a gram, which is in direct competition with prices in the black market. People will no longer be motivated to buy a poor quality product from a stranger on the street when they can get a high (no pun intended) quality product from a trusted vendor for the same price.
These drug reforms are part of the government’s 15-point programme called “Strategy for Life and Coexistence”. This is a move to make the country a safer place, freeing up more time for authorities to deal with serious violent crimes, as opposed to wasting police time with cannabis arrests. The President of Uruguay plans to increase spending on tackling criminal gang activity, which the tax revenue generated from cannabis can contribute towards.