Legal marijuana in Uruguay: example or cautionary tale?

. Dec 07, 2019
Legal marijuana cannabis Uruguay: example or cautionary tale? Photo: Greta Schölderle Møller/Unsplash

Uruguay blazed a trail worldwide in the legalization of marijuana. Under the left-wing administration of former President José Mujica, the tiny South American nation of 3.5 million people allowed the recreational use of cannabis in 2013. Four years later, it went on to be the first nation where the sale of the drug is also legal.

The system, however, is tightly regulated—with consumers having to register with the authorities and being limited to purchasing 10 grams a week (enough for roughly 20 joints). Regulators also control the permitted levels of THC—the main psychoactive component of cannabis—which is mixed with CBD, the second-most prominent active ingredient in the drug.

</p> <p>With 37,000 people registered as home-growers or marijuana consumers, the local cannabis market blossomed into a USD 100-million industry, creating at least 4,000 new direct and indirect jobs. Official data claims that the illegal drugs market lost over USD 22 million since the change in legislation.</p> <p>&#8220;The government wanted to dry up gangs&#8217; main source of revenue, as marijuana sales accounted for up to 80 percent of what traffickers made,&#8221; says Augusto Vitale Mariño, a sociologist who served as head of Uruguay&#8217;s Cannabis Regulatory and Control Institute (IRCCA).</p> <p>It has also had an unwelcomed side-effect, being linked to a recent bump in violence levels in Uruguay.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="Cannabis shop and culture in Montevideo, Uruguay. Photo: Ricardo Barata" class="wp-image-28699" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Cannabis shop and culture in Montevideo, Uruguay. Photo: Ricardo Barata</figcaption></figure> <h2>A hike in violence levels</h2> <p>Between 2010 and 2018, murder rates in Uruguay have <a href="">doubled</a> to 11.8 per 100,000 people. Not nearly as bad as Brazil&#8217;s 24.7 homicides per 100,000 people, but enough for local newspapers to talk about a &#8220;<a href="">murder epidemic</a>,&#8221; and make security the number one issue for Uruguayans in last month&#8217;s presidential election, according to data from private research center Cifra.</p> <p>But we shouldn&#8217;t jump to the conclusion that legalizing the sale of cannabis is <em>the </em>main cause behind those numbers. Data from the national drug surveys in Uruguay show that drug consumption has increased in the country—including those that remain illegal. In 2001, only 1.4 percent of the population declared having used cocaine—a rate that jumped to 6.8 percent in 2016.</p> <p>Unlike in Brazil, drug trafficking in Uruguay is dominated by micro-dealers, generally family enterprises. The legalization laws &#8220;stole&#8221; a sizeable market from these drugs gangs. Meanwhile, the country adopted a tougher approach against dealers, closing nearly 1,500 drug-selling spots between 2015 and 2017. That led traffickers to migrate their business into more dangerous activities—such as the cocaine trade—and fighting over the remaining available turf. According to the country&#8217;s Interior Ministry, 58 percent of homicides reported in 2018 were between drug dealers.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/1043476"></div><script src=""></script> <p>Drug dealers are also turning to transnational smuggling as their new source of income. That would help explain the hike in murder rates in towns such as Riviera and Chuy—both on the border with Brazil.</p> <p>&#8220;These small border towns have become major smuggling hubs for the trafficking of drugs, counterfeit goods, alcohol and, some believe, humans,&#8221; wrote Frank O. Mora, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, for <em>Global Americans</em>. There is a fear that these towns will begin to resemble the tri-border area between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, a hotbed for trafficking-related violence, &#8220;unless both governments enhance police presence and binational law enforcement cooperation.&#8221;</p> <h2>Cannabis to stay legal</h2> <p>While the legalization of cannabis has created some conditions that helped to fuel crime, putting increased murder rates down to Uruguayans smoking marijuana. Even the conservative president-elect Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou is not planning on outlawing cannabis.</p> <p>While he does criticize the current system—which registered losses of USD 22 million since being implemented by the state—Mr. Pou, who was the first congressman to propose cannabis legalization in 2010, believes in reform rather than repeal.</p> <p>&#8220;The system has to be in the black. I&#8217;d replace sales in pharmacies for smokers&#8217; clubs or incentivize home growing,&#8221; he said in an <a href="">interview</a> earlier this year. If anything, Mr. Pou wants to double down on a tougher approach to crime. &#8220;I wouldn&#8217;t back down [from legalization], but I&#8217;d fight drug trafficking. We have now gangs operating in Uruguay, something we didn&#8217;t have before.&#8221;

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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