22 June, 2012
Uruguay is planning a novel approach to fighting its rising crime:
having its government sell marijuana to take drug profits out of the hands
Under the plan backed by President Josee Mujica’s leftist administration,
only the government would be allowed to sell marijuana and only to adults
who register on a government database, letting officials keep track of
their purchases over time.
Profits would reportedly go toward rehabilitating drug addicts.
“It’s a fight on both fronts: against consumption and drug trafficking.
We think the prohibition of some drugs is creating more problems to society
than the drug itself,” Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro told
reporters late on Wednesday.
Fernandez said the bill would soon be sent to Congress, which is dominated
by Mujica’s party, but that an exact date had not been set. If approved,
Uruguay’s national government would be the first in the world to directly
sell marijuana to its citizens. Some local governments do so.
The proposed measure elicited responses ranging from support to criticism
“People who consume are not going to buy it from the state,” said Natalia
Pereira, 28, adding that she smokes marijuana occasionally.
“There is going to be mistrust buying it from a place where you have to
register and they can typecast you.”
Media reports have said that people who use more than a limited number of
marijuana cigarettes would have to undergo drug rehabilitation.
“I can now imagine you going down to the kiosk to buy bread, milk and a
little box of marijuana!” one person in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo,
wrote on their Twitter account.
Behind the move is a series of recent gang shoot-outs and rising cocaine
seizures have raised security concerns in one of Latin America’s safest
countries and taken a toll on Mujiica’s already dipping popularity.
The Interior Ministry says from January to May, the number of homicides
jumped to 133 from 76 in the same period last year.
The crime figures are small compared to its neighbours Argentina and Brazil
but huge for this tiny South American country where many still take pride
in its safety leaving their doors open and gathering in the streets late at
night to sip on traditional mate tea.
To combat rising criminality, the government also announced a series of
measures that include compensation for victims of violent crime and longer
jail terms for traffickers of crack-like drugs.
The idea behind the marijuana proposal is to weaken crime by removing
profits from drug dealers and diverting users from harder drugs, according
to government officials.
“The main argument for this is to keep addicts from dealing and reaching
substances” like base paste, a crack cocaine-like drug smoked in South
America, said Juan Carlos Redin a psychologist who works with drug addicts
Redin said that Uruguayans should be allowed to grow their own marijuana
because the government would run into trouble if it tries to sell it.
The big question he said will be, “Who will provide the government (with
During the press conference, the defense minister said Uruguayan farmers
would plant the marijuana but said more details would come soon.
“The laws of the market will rule here: whoever sells the best and the
cheapest will end with drug trafficking,” Fernandez said. “We’ll have to
regulate farm production so there’s no contraband and regulate distribution
… we must make sure we don’t affect neighbouring countries or be accused
of being an international drug production centre.”
There are no laws against marijuana use in Uruguay. Possession of marijuana
for personal use has never been criminalised in the country and a 1974 law
gives judges discretion to determine if the amount of marijuana found on a
suspect is for legal personal use or for illegal dealing.
Liberal think tanks and drug liberalisation activists hailed the planned
“If they actually sell it themselves, and you have to go to the Uruguay
government store to buy marijuana, then that would be a precedent for sure,
but not so different than from the dispensaries in half the United States,”
said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of US-based National Organisation
for the Reform.
St. Pierre said the move would make Uruguay the only national government in
the world selling marijuana. Numerous dispensaries on the local level in
the US are allowed to sell marijuana for medical use.
Some drug rehabilitation experts disagreed with the planned bill
altogether. Guillermo Castro, head of psychiatry at the Hospital Britanico
in Montevideo says marijuana is a gateway to stronger drugs.
“In the long-run, marijuana is still poison,” Castro said adding that
marijuana contains 17 times more carcinogens than those in tobacco and that
its use is linked to higher rates of depression and suicide.
“If it’s going to be openly legalised, something that is now in the hands
of politics, it’s important that they explain to people what it is and what
it produces,” he said.
Overburdened by clogged prisons, some Latin American countries have relaxed
penalties for drug possession and personal use and distanced themselves
from the tough stance pushed by the United States four decades ago when the
Richard Nixon administration declared the war on drugs.
“There’s a real human drama where people get swept up in draconian drug
laws intended to put major drug traffickers behind bars, but because the
way they are implemented in Latin America, they end up putting many
marijuana consumers behind bars,” said Coletta Youngers, a senior fellow at
the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
“There’s a growing recognition in the region that marijuana needs to be
treated differently than other drugs, because it’s a clear case that the
drug laws have a greater negative impact than the use of the drug itself,”
Youngers said. “If Uruguay moved in this direction they would be
challenging the international drug control system.”