Uruguay's Marijuana Legalization: South American Standard-Bearer

Uruguay's Marijuana Legalization: South American Standard-Bearer

While the United States and numerous other countries across the globe are rethinking the fight against marijuana, none has done more than Uruguay — yes, Uruguay — to legalize the production and sale of recreational marijuana. But before you plan a tourist trip to enjoy the benefits of Uruguay's marijuana legalization, there are a few things you should know.

A beacon of stability

Despite past periods of economic and political upheaval, Uruguay has become a beacon of stability. Known for its affluence, advanced education, social security systems, low crime, and liberal social laws, the country also has one of the highest per capita incomes — and lowest levels of inequality — in the region. Uruguay has parlayed fairly high taxes on industry into the first welfare state in Latin America, and its economy has been bolstered by robust offshore banking activity and a growing tourist industry. That economy will now also be further bolstered by the marijuana trade.

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Inspired by state-based legalization in the United States and other governments’ soul searching when it comes to the war on drugs, Uruguay is now the first nation in the world where the production and sale of recreational marijuana is fully legal. As the New York Times reports, supporters of the move say Uruguay’s stability, economic well-being, and progress makes it a model for what future drug policy in the region — and the rest of the world — could look like.

“This follows from increasing momentum by leaders in Latin America in calling for alternatives to the war on drugs,” said Hannah Hetzer, an analyst at the pro-decriminalization Drug Policy Alliance. “What’s so important about this is it takes a debate about the need for alternatives and provides an actual proposal for an actual policy.”

Uruguay's marijuana legalization happened in stages

The path toward state-controlled production and sale of pot In Uruguay hasn’t been a slam dunk, however. It took years to roll out. One of the main architects of the new legislation was Sebastián Sabini, a young lawmaker and occasional pot smoker, who introduced a bill back in 2011 shortly after being elected to Congress. Sabini said the law was needed because Uruguay’s poorest citizens bore the brunt of the country’s drug policies. Uruguay’s then-President, former guerrilla leader and political prisoner Jose Mujica, agreed with Sabini’s assessment, and pushed for legalization as a way to help those unfairly punished and, more importantly to him, to combat drug traffickers.

“Worse than drug addiction is drug trafficking,” Mujica said in a 2014 interview with a Spanish news network.

The people agreed, and voted to pass Uruguay's marijuana legalization in stages.

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First, after the law was passed in December 2013, users could register with the government for permission to grow up to six plants in their homes for personal use. “Clubs” of as many as 45 people could also operate grow houses with up to 99 plants for their members’ personal use. Seeking to allow but not promote marijuana use, the government also decided to partner with pharmacies — which already have medication safety and disbursement control measures in place — to coordinate commercial sales of the drug.

Before you plan a canna-trip to enjoy Uruguay's marijuana legalization, read this:

Today, if you want to buy marijuana at a pharmacy in Uruguay, you must first register with the government and the scan your fingerprints at the counter. There are also strict quotas in place to limit how much you can buy. Oh, and if you’re not a Uruguayan citizen or legal permanent resident, you can’t buy or grow any at all.

While that certainly is a buzzkill for the marijuana tourism business, Uruguay’s laws could present a blueprint for nation’s weighing their own legalization implementation stances and strategies.

For example, Uruguay not only limits how much pot consumers can buy in a week, but it also makes sure to aggressively undercut the prices charged by dealers on the black market. Marijuana advertising is also banned, and a percentage of all sales In Uruguay are directed toward addiction treatment programs and public awareness campaigns warning about the risks of drug use.

While government officials want to prevent Uruguay from become a worldwide mecca for pot users, global marijuana advocates should bow down to that country for its legalization efforts.