Uruguay just became the first country anywhere to officially legalize owning, using, producing, distributing, and selling marijuana. Mark the date: December 10, 2013.
The logic behind this move was not about what you might be thinking. This is a highly unpopular law with the public and many politicians, so it wasn't about recognizing “the will of the people” to legalize something that was already happening behind the scenes in large numbers. It also wasn't about collecting massive taxes on the drug through regulation; the country is still working on the licensing approach that needs to be in place, and isn't clear what the balance sheet will work out between the cost of regulation and the income to be produced by it. Still others have expressed major health concerns about more widespread use of the drug than its current illegal usage base, concerns based on fear of side effects, possible addiction, and as yet uncharted carcinogenic issues. (And regardless of where you as a reader may personally stand on these issues, it is clear that more widespread legal and regulated use is going to create some as yet unknown side issues for the medical and social services communities.) And today — the day after the passage — one group dedicated to stopping illegal international drug trafficking pointed out that by just passing this law Uruguay has violated a major international treaty about such things.
So — no — this wasn't about pleasing much of anybody. Instead, the reason for doing it is something suggested decades ago, and until now not tried on this big a scale. That reason is to drive the dangerous black market marijuana drug traffickers out of business in Uruguay.
The gangs that run most of the country's estimated $30 million/year marijuana business come from a number of countries, most notably Paraguay. With them come other illegal items, a way of life, and violence, all of which the ruling government of Uruguay feel are far more dangerous than any increased usage of marijuana in the country. And even if marijuana itself isn't a “gateway drug” to other things by itself (something I realize many reading this may also argue), it certainly can be in the hands of the particular dealers who offer it now to the citizens of Uruguay.
The central government, local cities and towns have tried unsuccessfully for years to eradicate these illegal traffickers. It has cost considerable money from the government coffers and many lives lost as well in the attempt to do so. So reaching the decision to legalize as a means to stop this — by taking the illegal market away from the traffickers from outside the country — took equally considered thought.
Although there are naysayers to this, it certainly can be argued that the legal concept doesn't exactly break open the doors to whatever people want to do regarding marijuana. It will require a license both to sell and to consume the product. Registered users will be allowed to buy only up to 40 grams a month from the local drug store (“chemist”). Pricing will be controlled at current black market rates; it won't be higher or the traffickers would come back in, and it won't be lower because that might increase demand. Registered growers will be limited to 6 plants. Cannabis Clubs will be allowed up to 99 plants and 45 members per club. So there are limits and every step of the way licensing will be required. And yes there will be abuse even in this but the government hopes that can be kept at a much lower level than the current level of problems.
It is a bold step the government is taking, and Uruguay's president José Mujica is looking far beyond its borders to assess the long-term wisdom of what he and his parliament have put into law. He knows there will be bumps in the road and this may not even make a dent in the trafficker problem.
If it doesn't, this risky step will fizzle out and disappear from the history books as just another failed try to deal with the growing worldwide illegal drug trafficking problem. But if it does, even from a lens that may need to take it all in no earlier than five years from now to be sure of the progress, you can bet it will spread to others, many of which are secretly rooting for Mr. Mujica's success in this from the sidelines.
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