Uruguay unveils marijuana regulation details

Law will be closely monitored throughout the hemisphere, as more countries mull drug policy alternatives

The Uruguayan government has unveiled long-awaited regulations for its recreational marijuana market — a move that steers the tiny nation of 3.3 million people away from the prohibitionist war on drugs, with its disastrous consequences in Latin America, and toward a drug policy based on improving public health and security. Although Uruguay’s Congress approved the measure in December — becoming the first country in the world to legalize recreational pot use — it was just this week that the government of President José Mujica announced all the details.

The regulations allow three forms of access to marijuana. Uruguayans can purchase up to 40 grams per month – with a limit of 10 grams per week – from registered pharmacies. They can also choose to cultivate up to 6 homegrown plants, with a cap on annual production at 480 grams. Finally, as members of cannabis clubs, Uruguayans will be able to cultivate up to 99 plants per group, with a production cap of 480 grams per member. But smokers must choose one form of acquiring pot, and will be denied access to the drug by the other two means. The law officially takes effect on May 6, the government announced Friday.

The “experiment,” as Mujica has labeled the law, will be closely monitored throughout the hemisphere – from Mexico to Guatemala to Argentina – as a growing list of countries increasingly mull alternatives to a militarized drug policy that has seen governments outgunned by trafficking syndicates, who rake in billions of dollars annually through illicit sales.

The rest of the world will be watching, too. The United Nations and United States have cast a wary eye on the measure, which contravenes international agreements on drug control. But the Obama administration finds itself in an awkward position internationally, and will likely temper its criticism of the Uruguay program, since Colorado and Washington state voted to legalize recreational pot use in November 2012. Since then, Latin American leaders have aggressively questioned U.S.-led drug control policy. They wonder why they should spend resources – and lose lives – defending drug laws when the U.S. government has allowed two of its states to experiment with marijuana legalization.

Moreover, the similarities between Uruguay’s measure and those of Colorado and Washington state are no coincidence. Julio Calzada, Uruguay’s drug czar, has long pointed to the U.S. measures as inspiration for his country’s law. Uruguay’s home cultivation provision, for example, mirrors Colorado policy. The Latin American nation will also register and track every government-grown marijuana plant in a process similar to Colorado’s Inventory Tracking System. And like Washington state residents, Uruguayans will be subjected to a DUI provision. Transit and municipal police will set up checkpoints and arrest drivers whose blood contains more than a set limit of THC, marijuana’s major psychoactive ingredient.

But in many ways the Uruguay measure stands alone – the result of a uniquely Latin America landscape marred by drug-related violence. Every marijuana buyer will have to register at local post offices. The registration system will allow the government to track users closely enough to get drug abusers into treatment facilities – with the hope of reducing consumption. The law, backed by physician groups, will also permit the government to produce pot for scientific and medical studies. And to dissuade marijuana tourism, only Uruguayan citizens and residents will be allowed to buy cannabis.

The government, additionally, will sell higher-quality pot at a lower price – $1 per gram – than black market pot from Paraguay, Latin America’s largest producer of the drug after Mexico. This is an effort to snatch the black market from drug traffickers, who have turned Uruguay into a major marijuana transit route. Mujica hopes to tap into the $40 million generated annually by the black market, which the government combats at an estimated cost of $80 million a year.

The new law “will allow us to adopt a socio-political experiment to address the serious problem of drug trafficking … the effect of drug trafficking is worse than the drug,” Mujica told the Brazilian daily A Folha de  São Paulo in December. “The repressive path has failed.”

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