Despite Polls, Uruguay Government Wants to Legalize Weed

PHOTO: Uruguay´s proposed marijuana law would legalize the sale and consumption of marijuana, and also allow people to grow up to six marijuana plants in their home. Polls suggest that most Uruguayans oppose legalization.

Patricio Guillamon/Freelance

Usually, you would expect middle-aged politicians, President Obama, for instance, to oppose, or at least ignore, proposals to get marijuana legalized, right?

Well, that's no longer the case in tiny Uruguay, where many parliamentarians are aggressively pushing for a law that will get pot fully legalized at the national level.

Lawmakers in Uruguay are insisting that this law should be passed, in spite of a recent poll that suggested that most of the country's citizens are against the legalization of the plant. The politicians say they support legalization because it's the best way to fight addiction and drug-related crime.

"There is no real alternative," Uruguayan Senator Sebastian Sabini told ABC/Univision. "In Uruguay it's clear that illegal drug consumption has increased in the last 50 years with prohibition, even as we improved the quality of repressive aspects," added the senator, whose party, The Frente Amplio, has a comfortable majority in Uruguay's parliament.

Senator Sebastian Sabini helped to draft Uruguay´s marijuana law. Here he has his morning fix of hierba mate, Uruguay´s national drink. (Photo: Patricio Guillamon)

The proposal would enable Uruguayans to buy up to 40 grams of weed per month from state-authorized distributors, enough for roughly 80 joints. If passed in its current form, the marijuana law would also create a National Institute of Cannabis, which would invest profits from pot sales in crime prevention and anti-addiction programs.

La Ley sobre la Marijuana, as it is known here, is also backed by Uruguay's progressive 77-year-old president, José Mujica. It was about to get passed by the Uruguayan parliament in December, but Mujica asked parliamentarians to delay the vote, after a poll suggested that 64 percent of Uruguayans do not agree with the bill.

"Don't vote on a law because you have majority in parliament," the president said on December 18. "Support has to come from the streets."

Mujica says that key supporters of the marijuana law must now convince a greater portion of Uruguayans that marijuana legalization will be beneficial for the country. This could turn out to be somewhat of a challenging job if you consider the following numbers.

In the poll conducted by Cifra back in December, which reportedly prompted Mujica to delay the marijuana vote, seven out of ten respondents over the age of 45 said that they rejected the possible legalization of the sale of marijuana in Uruguay. Six out of ten respondents who are over 30 years of age rejected legalization, and even amongst "youth" (people between the ages 16 and 29), 53 percent of respondents said they were against the legalization of pot.

Senator Sabini says that the poll results suggest that people in Uruguay confuse legalizing marijuana with promoting its consumption.

"Evidently it can be misinterpreted, so we have to fight against disinformation and try to make ourselves understood," the Uruguayan senator said. He added that legislators in Uruguay must now make space in their agendas to discuss the project through public forums and in mass media.

But rejection of the marijuana law could also indicate that conservative attitudes towards marijuana consumption are still prevalent in Uruguay.

"It's an addiction," said Oscar Esquivo, 60, as he made his way through downtown Montevideo. Esquivo added that marijuana consumption was only "acceptable," if it was used for medical purposes.

Tabaré Vázquez, a former president of Uruguay who is being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate for the 2014 elections, has taken an even tougher stance against the plant.

"There is no reason to consume marijuana, it simply must not be consumed," Vázquez said at a student gathering in the city of Colonia last year. Vázquez is a doctor with a specialization in oncology. He has said that there are medical studies that suggest that marijuana can lead to lung cancer. At the same time, however, some scientific studies suggest that marijuana can actually be used to treat the disease.

Either way, Vázquez has said that he will not back marijuana legalization if he were once again president of Uruguay. "First you have to prove that legalizing drug consumption works," he said at the student gathering.

Uruguay is not the only country in Latin America where marijuana legalization is opposed by a wide margin. A survey conducted in 2012, by the Mexican firm Parametria, suggests that 79 percent of Mexicans oppose plans to legalize pot. The global polling firm IPSOS conducted an international survey on marijuana legalization last year, and found no country in Latin America where the majority of residents wanted to legalize pot.

Argentina, which has been on the forefront of liberal issues like legalizing gay marriage, was one of the most pot-friendly countries in the IPSOS survey, but only 27 percent of Argentines who answered the IPSOS poll said that they agreed with legalizing pot.

Yet despite such local and international opposition, Uruguayan officials say they will push ahead with legalization. Julio Calzada, the secretary general of Uruguay's National Committee on drugs, reckons that the marijuana law will be voted on during the first half of this year, once the Uruguayan parliament reconvenes in March.

"Someone has to take the first step," Calzada said, "because we remain in a debate where it's said [legalization] is necessary, but that it has to be global, and it's very difficult to construct global consensus, there are a lot of interests and a lot of pressures."

Julio Calzada backs legalization. He leads Uruguay's National Comittee on Drugs. (Photo: Patricio Guillamon)

Arguing in favor of legalization, Calzada spoke about the war against drug cartels in Mexico, which has claimed an estimated 60,000 lives in the past six years.

He also mentioned recent efforts by the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, as well as the current president of Guatemala, to start an international debate on drug legalization policies. These politicians argue that if some drugs are legalized cartels will lose business, and earn less money to buy weapons with. They also say that legalization will enable law enforcement agencies to direct more resources towards crimes like kidnappings, homicides and human trafficking.

"There is an ever-growing group of professionals, intellectuals in the world who are begging for drug policy reform on the basis that [prohibition] has given the opposite results it proposed," Calzada said.

"Crime has grown, consumption has grown, arms trafficking has grown, and today there is the conviction many have that in many places the medicine is worse than the disease."

Uruguay is not Mexico. The South American nation has just 3.3 million inhabitants and one of the lowest crime rates in Latin America. But Calzada says that legalization is a pressing need in this country, as organized crime has begun to make inroads in Uruguayan society.

"Criminal groups have begun to dispute space in the market, and begun to kill one another as they try to control territory in different ways," says Calzada. "There is a permanent pressure on the social fabric that tends to destroy it, as has happened in other countries in Latin America."

Changing the culture of consumption

Under the proposed legislation, only Uruguayans over the age of 18 that have passed a psychiatric and medical screening would be able to purchase marijuana in distribution centers approved by the government. A registry of users would be kept by the state to prevent people from exceding consumption limits, although this proposed measure has raised some concerns from potential users who feel their privacy could be violated.

Unlike alcohol and tobacco – industries that Calzada says have grown stronger through the years in Uruguay – any kind of marketing or branding of marijuana would be prohibited under the new law. Citizens would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home or to join cannabis clubs where the plant is collectively grown. A National Cannabis Institute would direct income made from the sale of marijuana toward educational and health systems that would better inform potential users about the plant and combat addiction.

Uruguayans who are currently planting, buying and consuming marijuana in the shadows feel that the government's plans to legalize the drug would provide some relief.

"It goes beyond legality, it's about normalization," says 45-year-old Juan Vaz, sitting in the café of a bohemian hotel in the capital's historic district, a place he calls "cannabis friendly." Co-founder of the Association of Cannabic Studies Uruguay, which has helped defend home growers since 2005 and is an advisory member of the National Committee on Drugs, Vaz himself was imprisoned in 2007 for possession of 45 marijuana plants in his home.

"Now we are used to being stigmatized because what we're doing is illegal," he says. "But once it becomes legal, what difference will there be between being a member of a cannabis club and being a member of a football club?"

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