Uruguay has no specific legislation for cannabis, making its legal status a somewhat gray area. Personal possession and consumption are generally tolerated but cultivation and supply are seen as far more serious issues which – although not a widespread problem – are often punishable by harsh prison sentences.
Uruguay is the latest to join a long list of Latin American nations currently scrutinizing their drug policies, with the prevalent attitude being that the War on Drugs has failed and a new strategy is urgently required. Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela have all recently stated their intention to update existing legislation, having suffered unquantifiable loss of life, infrastructure and security over decades of fighting. In Uruguay, the current legislation on narcotics is a simple overview which states that: “Whoever is found in possession of a reasonable amount of drugs meant exclusively for personal consumption, as determined in good faith by a judge, will be exempt from punishment; the judge must substantiate the reasoning behind his/her ruling.” This law applies to all drugs, but lawmakers argue that separate legislation of production and supply is required to properly differentiate between cannabis and other, more dangerous, substances.
Controversial practices called into question
What constitutes “a reasonable amount… for personal consumption” is in itself a matter of contention in Uruguay, although it is popularly held that those possessing amounts over 25 grams of cannabis will be liable for prosecution. In cases that are brought before a court, it is usually left to the judge’s discretion to determine the nature of the possession. Recently, the case of Alicia Castilla, a then 66-year-old cannabis activist and author who was imprisoned for three months in 2011 for the possession of 29 un-sexed cannabis seedlings, has sparked nationwide debate regarding the appropriateness of her sentence and the nature of drug legislation in general. There are many further reports of similarly heavy-handed police actions, which are often a waste of resources given the small amounts of cannabis recovered. On June 20th, 2012, a piece of legislation was submitted to the Uruguayan Congress by the cabinet, proposing that the state take control of cannabis production, for recreational as well as medical purposes. Furthermore, importation and distribution would be overseen by the state, although the means by which this would be undertaken was not specified in the text. Non-state-authorized commercial production and sale would remain imprisonable offenses. The proposed legislation has been signed onto by President José Mujica’s entire ministry, but before it is implemented it must be put to a public referendum – Mujica has stated that he will only pursue the bill if support is at 60% or higher.
Uruguay’s cannabis culture
The cultural attitude to cannabis in Uruguay is relaxed, with the consensus being that it is tolerable due to the lesser negative impact on society compared with other narcotics. Cannabis consumption is socially acceptable and widespread, with several high-profile politicians admitting to their use of it. Cocaine is the second most widely-consumed drug, and is considered the most socially damaging of all. Amphetamines and other laboratory-manufactured stimulants are also becoming more common. The state has however taken a strong stance on tobacco, with some of the world’s toughest anti-smoking laws – to the extent that tobacco giant Philip Morris is currently attempting to sue on the basis of a threat to their business interests. As a result, tobacco smoking in Uruguay has declined by an unprecedented amount. However, violence and drug-related crime is on the increase, and law enforcement agencies believe a relaxation of cannabis law would enable them to dedicate a greater proportion of available resources to more serious issues.
The political situation
The approach of Mujica’s government seems based on the principle that legislating state-controlled production of cannabis will more clearly delineate its separation from other, more harmful narcotics. However, the proposal is not without its critics, who have long argued that legislation needs to be in favor of individual cultivation for personal consumption. Some view it as a surrender of cannabis production to a state monopoly arguably more concerned with potential profits than with ensuring the “ reduction of risks and potential dangers” of its populace. It is estimated that the cannabis trade in Uruguay is worth approximately $30-40 million annually, a not insignificant sum to a nation whose GDP was just over $50 billion in 2012, with tax revenues totaling approximately 27.3% of GDP. Certainly, the state’s approach will be ruthlessly competitive, aiming to undercut street prices by such a large margin that they will destroy the business of illegal dealers entirely. The cannabis consumption rate in Uruguay is approximately 6.0% in the 12 – 65 year age range, which makes it by far the most commonly consumed restricted substance. However, according to the UNODC’s World Drug Report 2012, consumption rates are stable or falling, as in much of Latin America. Uruguay is a politically stable representative democracy with a high degree of public participation, a consequently high level of public confidence in government, and a strong sense of political freedom. In 2009, the former left-wing militant and guerrilla fighter Mujica was voted into power in the country’s general election, leading the leftist Broad Front party in a decisive victory against the long-powerful but now declining Partido Colorado. Mujica is a hugely popular leader, and has a progressive attitude to controversial issues such as abortion, as well as donating 87% of his state salary to charity. Despite prevailing popularity, Mujica faces divided opinion on the cannabis issue from lawmakers and the public alike. Even if the bill makes it through Congress (which could take many months), it remains to be seen whether the public referendum on the proposed legislation will be supportive, as it may be rejected by those who are hopeful of more favorable proposals further down the line. However, the possibility of securing legal cannabis, no matter what the compromise, is an attractive option for a substantial number of voters.