Subject: [The Pan-American Post] Uruguay’s Marijuana Bill as an Anti-Crime Strategy
Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill faces a number of political and economic obstacles, but if properly implemented it could provide a model for other countries dissatisfied with the dominant approach towards drug policy in the region, as well as address growing insecurity in the historically peaceful nation.
It appears that the bill, which has been under consideration by Uruguay’s ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition for the past year, will finally face a lower house vote on July 31, and will likely pass with the full support of the FA’s slim majority in Congress. While opinion polls suggest the Uruguayan public is still largely opposed to marijuana regulation, a diverse platform of human rights groups, health workers and lawyers called “Regulacion Responsable” has launched an aggressive nationwide campaign to promote the measure, and has had success in altering the national debate on marijuana policy.
Since the campaign began in May, the conservative opposition in the country (the traditionally dominant National and Colorado parties) has become somewhat split on the issue, with a handful of opposition lawmakers voicing measured support for the initiative. Although the opposition’s leadership will likely restrict these legislators from voting for the measure next Wednesday, their backing suggests that Uruguay’s political class is becoming increasingly convinced of the need to regulate the black market for cannabis in the country.
So far, there has been little English-language coverage of the marijuana bill’s specifics or its potential impact on Uruguayan society. Most of the mainstream media has focused on its unpopularity, or on President Jose Mujica’s first proposal to legalize marijuana last June. The initiative has actually changed significantly since being introduced to Congress last year, and no longer involves the state monopoly Mujica first suggested. At the risk of self-promoting, perhaps the best available breakdown of the current bill is in this two-part investigation I wrote for InSight Crime, which has just been published.
As illustrated in this helpful graphic, in its current version the bill authorizes three forms of marijuana cultivation, which will be monitored by a new regulatory agency. The first of these is domestic cultivation, or “autocultivo,” in which adults can grow up to six plants in their homes, with a maximum annual yield of 480 grams. The second involves so-called "membership clubs," which allow cannabis enthusiasts to form growing cooperatives of between 15 and 45 members, and grow up to 99 plants. Third, the bill authorizes the state to grant licenses for private enterprises to grow marijuana for commercial purposes. This harvest will only be sold in pharmacies, though it will be available without a medical prescription. To purchase cannabis, users will have to present identification, and will sign on to a secure federal registry.
The bill’s success at undercutting the black market for marijuana (some 80 percent of which is imported from Paraguay, according to analysts) will depend on a number of economic and political factors. Although it will be kept private, users in Uruguay are already forced into a vulnerable position by being made to sign on to a federal registry. If politicians succumb to pressure from the opposition to levy taxes or alter the availability or price of the drug, it may not be enough to shut down the illegal trade. The prices which government officials say they are considering implementing are expected to undercut the street price of marijuana in the capital city of Montevideo, but are only barely competitive with prices in the country’s interior (see this map of reported price variation of marijuana around the country).
But if the drug is made available to users throughout the country, and is cheaper (or at least of better quality) than the marijuana sold on street corners, it could take a considerable bite out of the profits of criminal networks in the country. Officials say that Uruguay consumes around 30 tons of marijuana a year, generating between 30 and 40 million dollars a year in illicit revenue. The hope is that this will translate to a decrease in criminal activity. While it is one of the safest countries in Latin America, Uruguay’s crime rate has been rising in recent years, and 2012 was a record year for homicides. Police are also concerned about the emergence of increasingly organized criminal actors in the country. Although Uruguay’s underworld cannot be compared to those in Central America, Colombia or Mexico, authorities say there has been a rise of gang-like criminal bands in urban areas. By taking away their profits from marijuana sales, the government hopes to deny them the financial capability to expand into a bigger threat.