HomeNewsAnalysisUruguay Didn't Want to Legalize Marijuana (But Did it Anyway)

Uruguay Didn't Want to Legalize Marijuana (But Did it Anyway)


Nelly Santos was worriedly waiting for her son to come home after receiving a call from his school. Daniel arrived with his head lowered, his cap visor covering his face and his eyes reddened. He'd been caught smoking marijuana with some other students. Nelly, a 58-year-old nurse, first thought: "he's lost." She's heard stories about people who'd gone crazy after consuming cannabis; it turned them into criminals, or ruined their lives and the lives of those around them. But seeing the shame, apathy, and fear with which her son crossed the threshold of the front door changed her mind within seconds.

She hugged him and said, "I hope you give it up soon. But if not, this is your house, your refuge." In short time – December 31, Nelly's birthday – Daniel lit up a joint and passed it to his mother. It was the first time she'd tried pot...

Fifteen years later, while Uruguay waited for Congress to vote on the law regulating marijuana production, sales, and consumption, Nelly Santos showed off some of the buds (or brotes) of her most recent harvest. She was a dark and short woman with a delicate voice, who dressed in loose clothing and kept her black hair in two long braids. It'd been 13 years since she'd begun growing marijuana, one of about 5,000, according to the Uruguayan National Drug Council's (JND) calculations, although the Association of Marijuana Studies (AECU) says there's up to 12,000.

This article originally ran in Domingo El Universal and was translated and reprinted with permission from the authors. Read the original here.

"First I let Daniel smoke at home to protect him from the street. I was afraid of what would happen to him. I wanted to keep him away from the bocas de humo [street sale points for drugs], so that's why afterwards we started planting it," said Nelly in the living room of her modest home on the outskirts of Montevideo, a stone house where she lives with her son, husband, and two dogs. She spoke while chewing mate from a cow hoof gourd.

"I knowing growing is illegal but I don't feel like a criminal," she said reflexively before we left. "Although every time a patrol car comes down my street my heart goes out of my chest. I just want to grow in peace."

"Every time a patrol car comes down my street my heart goes out of my chest. I just want to grow in peace."

Some years ago in Latin America, several public figures turned away from prohibition and began supporting a different strategy in the war against drug trafficking – verbally, at least. In 2012, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina supported drug legalization for several months. Mexico's former President Vicente Fox later declared, "I'd grow marijuana if it was permitted." And there was a moment when Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil, supported Uruguay's regulation plans. There's also been a few times when Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa seemed willing to explore alternative approaches to the militarized battle against drug trafficking.

In the US, the sale of prescription-only medicinal marijuana is permitted in 17 states, while Colorado and Washington allow for recreational use. In Holland, there's tolerance in the coffee shops, establishments where cannabis is sold and consumed; Portugal decriminalized drug possession; in Spain private use is not a crime, although public use is. In North Korea, marijuana and opium aren't even considered drugs. Mexico's Federal District is also gearing up for a marijuana regulation proposal.

A recent study by non-governmental organization the Latin American Drugs and Public Opinion Observatory (OPDOP) found that most Latin Americans have a positive view of the decriminalization of marijuana consumption, seeing it as a public health issue. But up until now, there is just Uruguay – a small country of three million inhabitants, where there are more cows than people and the poverty and homicide rates are much lower than its neighboring countries.

It's a country where the president, Jose Mujica, is an ex-guerrilla who lives on a modest farm outside Montevideo – similar to Nelly's – and he was bold enough to push through regulations on marijuana's production, sale, and consumption in the region of the world most affected by drug trafficking.

"It's a context in which increased seizures and more people jailed for drug trafficking hasn't slowed down the phenomenon at all, instead insecurity and consumption has gone up," explained Sebastian Sabini, one of the principal authors of the new law and member of the Movement of Popular Participation party, part of the ruling left-wing Broad Front coalition. "We need to regulate the existing market to drag youth away from buying it illegally on the street, protect their health and look for alternatives to what we've been doing up until now."

SEE ALSO: Uruguay: Marijuana, Organized Crime, and the Politics of Drugs

On July 31, 2013, members of Congress debated the bill for almost 13 hours, although the larger parties had already called ranks to vote en bloc. The Broad Front counted on 50 members of Congress, and the opposition – made up of the right-wing National Party and the Colorado Party – were 49. Just one member of Congress, Dr. Dario Perez of the Broad Front, had hinted days earlier that he could vote against the party line. Perez finally said, "marijuana is bosta [cow excrement] whether there's a law or not." And he voted in favor.

According to Uruguayan polling company Cifra, 63 percent of Uruguayans were nevertheless opposed to the law's approval.

The next day, Mujica defended his government's decision. The law granted licenses for the national production of marijuana, legalized the monthly consumption of up to 40 grams per person via pharmacy sales; permitted homes to grow up to six marijuana plants, and legalized the creation of cannabis clubs that could have between 15 to 45 members, and up to 99 marijuana plants.

"The law is an attempt at a regulation," he said. "It's an attempt to end what's been underground. Identify and have a market in the light of day. If we can identify the consumer, we can better influence him when he crosses the line. It's one thing to smoke a joint and another to sink into addiction and no one throws you a rope." On the opposition to the law, he simply said, "It's tough for a country of old people to understand the young."

Nearly one year after Congress approved the law, none of the plans for marijuana sales have yet been launched. It's expected that marijuana will be in pharmacies for sale in December this year or in January 2015.

But growers like Nelly, who now plant "in peace," have proliferated. And according to Cifra's data, rejection of the so-called Law 19.172 of the Regulation of the Cannabis Market has grown to 64 percent among Uruguayans, while the majority of the country (62 percent) wants to see it revoked.

Everything for Cannabis

Uruguay's first "grow shop" wasn't bigger than two meters squared. It had crystal windows and was full of tents, bulbs, fertilizers, kits for growing marijuana... it was alongside a vinyl store, in an alley of unpopular local shops in central Montevideo. There was no sign, just a few stickers belonging to the pro-cannabis movement. This was Uru Grow – behind the counter were Juan Guano and Manolo, preparing a joint. Last year, when President Mujica spoke for the first time of regulating marijuana sales and cultivation, these 24-year-olds decided to launch their own business, along with a friend. They quit their former jobs to dedicate themselves a hundred percent to their real passion, something that's increasingly common among the young: cannabis.

While Guano and Manolo can't sell marijuana yet, they're anticipating thousands of clients will want to grow weed themselves in light of the new law – it's said that this may eventually be 25,000 people in Uruguay.

"We knew this was the moment to open the store. We didn't want a huge business, but we did want to make a living from this and help contribute to the culture of planting indoors," Juan Guano tells us, a young guy with a sparse beard, proud of winning Uruguay's first Cannabis Cup for his "guanabana," a plant that took over a year to bloom.

Among his clients are elderly women with multiple sclerosis, businessmen, young people like them who have a garden at home and will spend up to $120 on a complete marijuana-growing kit. They're also approached daily by those who are waiting for the state to grant medicinal marijuana production and distribution licenses, which would allow people to buy it in pharmacies. "Everything thinks they can buy it legally from us, but no, we're waiting like everyone else for it to start being sold."

The wait keeps getting longer and longer. For months now, the implementation of the law – which has caused such controversy across the continent – has been at a standstill. The presidential and legislative elections this October are another threat. The opposition, headed by the National Party, aims to overthrow the law either partially or completely should they win, a prospect that excites many Uruguayans. Uru Grow's clients must keep on waiting.

LacalleNational Party presidential candidate Luis Lacalle Pou (pictured left) is one of the biggest supporters of overturning the law. "Don't bother planting anything, because we're going to repeal [the law] once we form the new [Congressional] majority," he announced during the speech that launched his campaign.

The opposition maintains that the law promoted by Mujica is unviable and isn't solid enough to work. "The whole proposal is unenforceable, the pharmacies don't want to sell the drug and no one wants to register as a consumer, as the law demands," Pou told the press some weeks ago.

It's been legal to smoke marijuana in Uruguay for 40 years – so is the consumption of other drugs. The law became effective last year, but it's still not known which company will be responsible for growing marijuana for state distribution. In early August, the government officially called on the businesses interested in producing and distributing marijuana for recreational use. Nevertheless, the public bidding recommended by the National Drug Council hasn't happened.

Nor is there a concrete proposal for how marijuana will be distributed to pharmacies. Uruguay's Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Association has always been opposed to commercializing weed and even launched a campaign via www.change.org to convince the government to drop the project. "As is the case with alcohol and tobacco products, marijuana for non-medicinal use should not be distributed in pharmacies. This is hurting the image of pharmacies in society and will diminish perceptions of the risks and harm caused by consuming marijuana," the campaign asserted. Mujica himself has said that the pharmacies' opposition, the lack of a system for registering and selling the product, and other bureaucratic obstacles regarding pharmacy sales could well delay the law's implementation until 2015.

Implementation of the law has dragged in other areas as well. Just a few days ago, the Cannabis Regulation and Control Institute (IRCCA) announced that as of August 27, people could register for the permits that allow growing marijuana for personal use, which would have to be renewed every three years. No one can grow more than 480 grams a year. According to official calculations, between 18 to 22 tons of marijuana would have to be produced annually to support a market of an estimated 150,000 consumers.

Nor has the government established a price for the legal pot.

"People are against drugs and don't distinguish between different kinds," said Adriana Raga, director of polling company Cigra when she announced the latest poll on Mujica's law. Just 27 percent of the population supported legalization. A small, educated sector supports it, but the rest of Uruguay continues to associate any type of the drug with the bocas de humo.

SEE ALSO: Uruguay News and Profile

Juan Guano and Manolo have grown marijuana at home since they were 15, with their parents' permission. They decided not to buy it on the street – at the bocas de humo – because these were dangerous places that sold bad-quality marijuana, pressed and mostly of Paraguayan origin. Many growers felt the same way, and began planting in their gardens and basements in order to avoid a business that guaranteed deaths.

Mujica's government used the following premise to justify legalization: in the last few years, homicides in Uruguay have risen from five per 100,000 inhabitants to 6.4, a figure that's closer to Europe than many Latin American countries. Nevertheless, the top priority for many Uruguayans is security.

"We've seen that the increase of violence is closely linked to drug trafficking and not necessarily consumption (...) the idea is that for every user we incorporate into the legal system, we steal them from the drug traffickers and thus we weaken them somewhat. The president is convinced that a business as profitable as drug trafficking can't be beaten with repression," said Julio Calaza, head of Uruguay's National Drug Council.

Juan Guano and Manolo have still managed to expand their business, even though the law hasn't been implemented yet. They moved into a bigger store, imported new products, got even more clients. Now there is a large sign outside their store that openly says: Uru Grow.

Elsewhere in Montevideo, Juan Vaz tells his children about his own personal Mordor whenever he wants to warn them about breaking the law, a place where "orcs eat orcs" – the jail he got to know very well in 2007 after police raided his farm in 2007. Agents seized about 50 cannabis plants, five of them in bloom – the phase in which buds grow containing THC, the principal active ingredient in marijuana. He was sentenced to two year, four months.

An anonymous tipster – a neighbor, usually the most common in these types of cases – had ratted him out.

Vaz, who is 47 years old, had spent nearly half his life growing marijuana, but when he left prison after serving 11 months – he got out on parole – he became one of the most well-known cannabis activists in Uruguay. Along with his partner, Laura Blanco, he directs the Association of Marijuana Studies (AECU) from an apartment where he shows off hashish in the freezer and a box full of vaporizers for smoking pot.

Supporters of Uruguay's marijuana regulation law

Among other activities, the AECU organizes meetings for marijuana growers, who are more private than clandestine these days. There are awards for the best samples and legal advice for those who've been imprisoned for cultivation or possession of marijuana. "When you're in there for a day, you don't want anyone to get sentenced for 40 years," Vaz said some months ago, while taking a few puffs from one of the vaporizers.

One of the most symbolic cases supported by the AECU – which many see as a watershed moment for the cannabis regulation law – involves Argentine Alicia Castilla. Five patrols seized 29 plants on her property, on January 30 2011. Castilla, who was then 66 years old, spent 95 days in prison. Her articles in Cannabis magazine and books earned her the nickname "Mrs. Cannabis," along with the respect of the community of marijuana growers and users.

Her reputation meant there was some media coverage on the indignant reaction to her arrest. "She was just testing what types of seeds would adapt to the environment," asserted Federico Alvarez, the defense lawyer who became involved in the case.

Contrary to what many would think, Castilla has been a tough critic of Mujica's law. The activist openly expressed her discontent after the Senate endorsed the law in December 2013. "The state can't intervene in people's private lives, or control who 'crosses the line,' what kind of new fascism are we inventing?" she said. On the other side is Vaz, who advised the legislators who drafted the law. "It's not the ideal law but it breaks with the prohibitionist paradigm. We've got to educate people. Officials, for example, don't know anything about marijuana."

Since Castilla's arrest and imprisonment, the harshness of the punishments issued to marijuana growers and consumers has dropped significantly, said Alvarez, the defense attorney, during an interview in his office. Marijuana consumption was decriminalized in 1974, the military dictatorship era, although as the attorney recalls, "if they smelled something, you were going to prison."

Around that time, psychiatrist Raquel Peyraube treated patients who suffered cocaine-induced hallucinations. Since then, she has specialized in treating the harms caused by drug use. She became a noted activist in favor of marijuana regulation, but she now has some reservations. "Very few bocas de huma are selling marijuana. I think in the purest version of the law, all drugs would have to be legalized."

The activism of people of people like Vaz, Castilla and Peyraube was the impetus that led to the regulation law.

CalzadaIn the beginning, it was only supposed to be a law that allowed growing marijuana for personal use. Both the public and the opposition supported this. People involved in the process asserted that Mujica took advantage of this trend, but wanted the state to become more of protagonist. Additionally, the issue of public security overrode that of public health. "The rise of violence is closely linked to drug trafficking and not necessarily to consumption. So we have to ask ourselves, what's marijuana's role? It's a substance that causes damage similar to alcohol. Why do we regulate one and not the other," said Calzada (pictured left), who remembers the days of his youth when milkmen delivered to houses and people left them coins under the doormats. Cars and houses were never locked, back then. "For Uruguayans, Montevideo has turned into a Gothic city."

It's a feeling that's been attributed to the rise in contract killings, a relatively unknown phenomenon in Uruguay until recently. In 2012, two men wearing socks over their faces fired eight bullets into Washington Rissoto, a football contractor and, according to the authorities, drug trafficker. Last July, two masked men on motorcycles fired upon a well-known pair of traffickers in Montevideo, which remains the most peaceful capital in Latin America, but as Calzada said, "We are always comparing against ourselves."

"We proposed [marijuana regulation] as a possible solution to this reality. This is a country that does have a state that works, a legitimate judicial system; a country that resolves 95 percent of the crimes committed here," he said. "We don't think this is a possible reality for Guatemala, Honduras, or Venezuela. But he does allow room for doubt. "It's possible in the next 20 years we'll see July 31, 2013 as part of prehistory."

With reporting from Pablo Ferri.

Reprinted and translated with permission from Alejandra S. Inzunza and Pablo Ferri. Follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at https://www.dromomanos.com. This article originally appeared in Domingo El Universal.

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