It’s been ten years since Uruguay opted for the legalization of marijuana for adult and recreational use. This is the path that the Colombian government is trying to follow, so far without success because it has not obtained the majority support of Congress to fight against the mafias that traffic in this substance, for now still illegal in Colombia. Uruguay was a pioneer in the world in the legalization of this drug and, a decade later, the changes have a mixed assessment, after a decision that attracted international attention.
In fact, although the Uruguayan Parliament approved the measure on December 10, 2013, it did not begin to be applied until 4 years later, when marijuana began to be marketed in pharmacies. Since that time, marijuana has been legal for adult use and recreational purposes. It was the first country in the world to go down that road to fight against illegal gangs, although it gave limitations to its inhabitants so that they could freely plant and consume only 10 grams per week.
Jose Mujica was the president of the country and was the main promoter of the law to, as he said, “steal the market from drug traffickers”. The leftist president’s plan was an alternative to the “failed fight against drug trafficking”; a discourse that now, ten years later, Colombia is trying to follow.
Market diversification in Uruguay
According to estimates from a few years ago, the regulation of marijuana meant taking away from the drug traffickers a business of close to 22 million dollars a year, which now goes to the state. The market went from the illegal import of the plant from neighboring Paraguay, the largest producer in South America, to higher quality local plantations that now proliferate in the streets of Uruguayan cities.
The legislation implemented three mechanisms to acquire marijuana: self-cultivation, cannabis clubs and purchase in pharmacies, all under state regulation and restricted to those residing in the country, although the Parliament is considering opening the market to tourists. To engage in any of the three options, the consumer must register, otherwise the activity would be illegal and could even incur a prison sentence.
However, official figures show that the legal supply does not meet the demand, and some consumers are still resorting to the black market. In fact, according to the same information, the illegal market is still supplying most of the marijuana, with only 27% of the people who acquire this drug doing so legally, according to a study published by the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) that collected annual data for 2021.
In this decade of radical change in anti-drug policy, assessments are mixed. For the measure’s defenders, its success is evident because it has taken away an important market share from the illicit economies that used marijuana to finance their criminal activities. “Cannabis regulation has been more effective than repression in terms of hitting drug trafficking,” explains Mercedes Ponce de León, director of the Cannabis Business Hub and ExpoCannabis Uruguay.
Similarly, other voices defend the boldness of a country with just 3.5 million inhabitants in its determination to make a radical about-turn in the fight against drug trafficking. “Uruguay’s strategy has been to position itself at the international level from a human rights and advanced perspective. We implemented the model when in the USA there were only two states that had legalized marijuana for recreational purposes”, said the ex-secretary of the National Drug Board (JND), Milton Romani, to Spanish media. Romani, one of the promoters of the initiative, considers that the war on drugs and repression “have only shown that, far from solving the problem, they generate a new one, because violence increases and neither production nor trafficking nor consumption ceases”.
For the most critical, although they recognize the benefits of creating a legal market, the crime figures dismantle the theory of the supposed effectiveness of the measure in the fight against illegal gangs. “The greatest achievement is to generate a legal market that did not exist before, and like any legal market it has advantages,” Rosario Queirolo, a political scientist and professor at the Catholic University of Uruguay, told BBC Mundo. According to Queirolo, “that causal mechanism does not work. The cannabis market was regulated and homicides and robbery rates continued to rise.”
Paradoxically, after the implementation of the law, a second illegal market has been created, in which home growers or members of registered cannabis clubs divert part of what they produce to sell it, mainly to tourists who are looking for a higher quality product than the Paraguayan pressing. This is acknowledged by some members of cannabis clubs who offer this information while remaining anonymous.
Social support for legalization grows
What has grown in the country is support for the legalization of marijuana. A survey by the consulting firm Cifra shows that support for regulating the sale of cannabis for adult use has doubled in ten years. Currently 48% of Uruguayans are for it, while 45% are opposed. In 2012, only 22% were in favor and 66% opposed.
There is no doubt that Uruguay has led the way for other world leaders who have opted, or are trying to do so in their national parliaments, to follow the same path in the fight against drug trafficking, which causes so much havoc in the countries producing and exporting illegal substances.
The Colombian case
Although the Colombian government’s last two attempts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana have failed to gain enough support for the legislative branch to approve the measure, the executive and its parliamentary allies have already announced that they will continue to try.
In 1986 in Colombia, Law 30 adopting the National Narcotics Statute legalized the dose for personal consumption of cannabis, as well as having a crop of up to 20 plants, but it is still illegal to buy and sell it.
Drug trafficking is a real scourge in the country and, although the main financing of these illegal groups comes from the commercialization of cocaine, the legalization of marijuana would represent a first step in a change of paradigm by the State in the fight against these groups.
However, the proposal is today strongly opposed by the country’s conservative opposition, which asserts that the measure will not succeed in taking economic power away from the mafias and that, in addition, it implies a normalization of consumption that could seriously damage public health, especially in young people.
Political confrontation over legalization failure
For his part, Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s president, has recently accused politicians who voted against the marijuana regulation bill of “having ties to drug-trafficking paramilitaries,” an accusation that was strongly criticized by Senate President Iván Name.
“They only have to compare the list of senators condemned for links with drug-trafficking paramilitaries and those who voted to suspend the personal dose and criminalize consumers. They will find that they are the same; why? Because drug trafficking only wins in the illicit and not in the licit”, said the president, whose harsh accusations have already created strong controversy in the country.