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Legalisation is the best tool against ‘narco’ in Uruguay

Cannabis law reforms brought in during the presidency of José Mujica are pointing the way for South America

This sponsored article is published in association with CISTA,  a Little Atoms partner

“Legalising marijuana is not beautiful but it is even worse to leave it to the ‘narco’. The only healthy addiction is love.”

José Mujica, the charismatic ex-president of Uruguay expressed his views on drugs laws after marijuana was made legal in the country in December 2013. Mujica was a socialist guerrilla in his youth, and spent 14 years being tortured in prison for his political convictions. His government was the first in Latin America to put cannabis in the hands of the state. Since then a public institution controls each phase of the process: from planting to storing, selling and consuming marijuana.

In a region desolated by the violence of drug traffickers this law was created mainly as an alternative to curb the rising of trafficking.

“The law doesn’t want to facilitate or promote consumption but to clear rules for making it more difficult for gangsters to penetrate the market,” says Julio Calzada, a member of the national drugs oversight body (the Junta Nacional de Drogas).

Indeed the annual amount of marijuana the government is is set to produce has been calculated by the amount sold each year in the black market, 25 tonnes according to the government. That means that illegal traders made around US$30 million each year (£20 million). The law says every non-authorised plantation should be destroyed.

National production will be provided by a few licensed farmers, who it is hoped will guarantee quality. Around 10 licenses have been awarded. In total there will be around 20.

More than one year after the law was passed the government is still implementing some of the later stages. Around 1,300 people have been registered as "home growers" and there are now more than 500 "cannabis clubs". But the authorised pharmacies where the drug will be available are still to be opened.

The new president, Tabaré Vázquez, temporarily postponed the sale of marijuana in pharmacies right after he assumed the presidency on 1 March. 

Vázquez is member of the same party as Mujica. But Despite promising to keep the law he is less enthusiastic about it than his predecessor. 

Pharmacies are supposed to control the sales of marijuana according to the new law. Each person can have 40 grams of marijuana each month and  each family is allowed to grow up to six plants.

Regional shift

Due to its gradual implementation there hasn’t been any in depth analysis of the consequences yet some data shows the consumption of marijuana is up. The National Observatory of Drugs did a survey in 2014 on drug consumption in teenagers. The research found that 17 per cent of the population aged between 13 and 17 used marijuana in this period. This is a five per cent increase on 2011, when the same survey was carried out.

More than US$2 million has been seized in illegal land, boats and houses from the drug trade since 2010 and will be used for anti-drug policies, according to the National Bureau of Drugs.  “The pressure against the traffickers has increased”, said Carlos Noria, inspector at the General Direction of Repression of Illegal Drugs. “We have done a good number of big seizures, especially of marijuana, the illegal drug that circulates the most in Uruguay.”  

The region is changing its  views on legalisation. Last October Chile allowed the growth of medicinal marijuana, and is looking to do the same with recreational cannabis. In Colombia, the congress is debating a project for its medical use.

CISTA is a new political party. In the General Election we will campaign for a Royal Commission to review the UK's drug laws relating to cannabis.

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