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Uruguay: The Little Country that Could

Photo by Vince Alongi


Uruguay: The Little Country that Could

Little Uruguay, population of 3.5 million, is leading the world. The tiny South American nation that famously first hosted and won the planet’s most significant sports tournament, has now bravely stepped forward to implement the world’s first fully legalized cannabis market.

To better understand the landscape, we spoke with Amanda Reiman of the Drug Policy Alliance, who just returned from a visit to the pioneering South American nation and its December Expo Cannabis Fair. For readers familiar with the ways the industry-driven green rush continues to explode in America, the best lens to view how Uruguay structures its legalization is inextricably tied to the policy’s origins.

“It’s a movement, far more than an industry,” says Reiman, “which is a big difference from the U.S.”

For Reiman, this difference was driven home noticing the cultural contrast between November’s Marijuana Business Conference & Expo in Las Vegas and Uruguay’s cannabis convention.

“The idea of mass production and consumption is a very American value,” she says. “Down [in Uruguay], it’s all about the rights of people.”

Legalization was a big risk for Uruguay. Breaking the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs treaty was no small feat. Uruguayans took that step because they could not justify adhering to both that treaty and the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. Faced with what it saw as an inherent conflict between its two signed obligations, Uruguay chose human rights.

It could have gone differently. Reiman points out the outsized influence the United States has in the United Nations context.

“It’s was really fear of the United States, and what we would do, that’s prevented a lot of countries from moving forward [on progressive cannabis policy],” she says.

Most of the credit is due to the leadership of one man, former president Jose Mujica, who bucked legislative intransigence and fierce conservative opposition to successfully enact legalization in late 2013, despite the fact that Mujica personally opposes the use of cannabis.

Practicality forced Mujica’s hand. While earlier this year he called marijuana “another plague,” his bigger values trumped that viewpoint. “150,000 people smoke here, and I couldn’t leave them at the mercy of drugs traffickers. It’s easier to control something if it’s legal and that’s why we’ve done this.”

Undercutting the black market is a policy goal that is also shared by leaders of other nations. Canada’s recently-elected Justin Trudeau embraced these practical values while discussing legalization in a press conference on December 17.

“The fact is, if you tax it too much,” said Trudeau, “you end up with driving things toward a black market, which will not keep Canadians safe.”

Reiman says this emphasis on public policy designed first and foremost for the needs of its citizens is what she witnessed on her recent trip.

“As a country, they’re really just interested in helping Uruguayans. They’re interested in helping people with medical conditions, they’re interested in helping people that have addictions to other drugs,” she says. “They’re very interested in helping children,” noting that Colorado’s Stanley Brothers, who created Charlotte’s Web, are now down in Uruguay growing medical cannabis.

As for other South American countries, interest is building to address the same societal ills combated by Uruguay’s bold movement.

“Now that Uruguay has done this, there is a lot of interest” among leaders of other South American countries, said Reiman, “not necessarily because they want people to have marijuana, but because of the violence associated with the illegal trade.”

Safety and security has long been used by cannabis prohibitionists as a rationale for opposing legalization, but safety and security arguments look increasingly foolish to nations experienced with the violent fallout from the black market’s continued viability. Its goal to undercut that market is why Uruguay’s government-licensed pharmacies will sell cannabis at roughly $1 per gram.

Wherever Uruguay’s cannabis movement spreads next, the failure of America’s War on Drugs is increasingly seen for the catastrophe that it is for ordinary citizens worldwide. By enacting cannabis policy designed to protect its own citizens, Uruguay has fulfilled its primary responsibility and shown leadership by not waiting for the foot-dragging U.S. to reverse its own federal policy. Other nations may soon follow suit.

And that’s a good thing.

What country do you think should legalize adult-use cannabis? Tell us in the comments below. 

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