Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica is considered the world’s “poorest” president. He donates 90 percent of his $1,200 monthly salary to charities that benefit the poor and small entrepreneurs. He lives an austere lifestyle, refusing to live in the presidential palace, but rather in a small house with his wife on their chrysanthemum farm. His method of transportation is an aging Volkswagen Beetle, a relic from the 1970s.
Mujica is a former Marxist guerrilla fighter who spent 14 years in military prison — two in solitary confinement — during Uruguay’s turbulent uprisings of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Mujica has always lived a simple life and advocates for Uruguay’s poor. As one of the leaders of Uruguay’s left wing Broad Front coalition, Mujica and his government have instituted progressive reforms that have made headlines worldwide. Yet despite being a leftist, he distances himself from the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales and instead models his government to the likes of Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, focusing on ways to better the people and society with the help of a strong federal government.
Uruguay legalized both abortion and gay marriage in 2012 and 2013 respectively. It seemed only fitting that Uruguay would continue its far-left progressive approach when it came to challenging the international War on Drugs and in particular, the war on weed.
In December 2013, Mujica and his government legalized marijuana, production, distribution and sale, making it the first country in the world to do so and creating an alternative narrative than the War on Drugs. Despite the fact that the majority of the population opposes the law, Mujica and his government are championing the law as an “experiment,” an attempt to fix Uruguay’s growing drug-related consumption and crime problems.
Under no circumstance is the government advocating widespread legalization outside of their country, nor are they trying to profit from the industry.
The law allows Uruguayan citizens 18 years or older registered with the government to purchase up to 40 grams of cannabis a month for personal use, grow up to six plants at home or join a club that would allow citizens to grow up to 99 plants. The price is set at about $1 per gram, comparable to the street value. Tourists are not allowed to purchase or consume marijuana in Uruguay.
Today, marijuana in Uruguay is imported from Paraguay and is substandard to what the government hopes to provide. The product from Paraguay is often dry and compressed. The government product is to be comparable, if not better than the imported street drug; an attempt to eliminate the black market. Strict penalties will be enforced against those who are caught driving under the influence of the drug, minors who are caught in possession of the drug and a strict statute makes cross border transportation of marijuana illegal.
Cannabis will be available for purchase at local pharmacies. One of the architects of the law, Julio Cazado, stated in an interview.
“[Pharmacies are] the logical distribution point,” Cazado said.
So why did Mujica support such a dramatic move away from the hard-line international response to illegal drugs? Many would assume for economic purposes and for good reason, it is estimated that Uruguay is set to bring in $8-12 million dollars in annual tax revenue from the cannabis law — money that has already been delegated to be invested into awareness programs that help detail the risks of prolonged cannabis use as well as treatment options for problematic users. Private corporations will have no hand in Uruguay’s cannabis market.
Mujica says the law is not advocating the consumption of marijuana, but rather providing a pragmatic solution to a problem that is facing the Uruguayan society; usage of hard drugs such as cocaine paste is beginning to grow rapidly as is the crime associated with it.
Supporters of the law believe it is a more pragmatic solution to the problem despite condemnation from the International Narcotics Control Board, a United Nations (U.N.) body that governs worldwide drug enforcement. The board argues that Uruguay violated a 1961 U.N. contract that states countries will ban controlled substances and enforce the ban on production and consumption of such substances, which Uruguay signed. They argue that the law is harmful to the people of Uruguay and inconsistent with the international community.
The cannabis legalization law will go into full effect sometime in mid-2014 with many looking upon Uruguay to see how successful (or unsuccessful) the law will be.
Despite all the criticisms, Mujica and his government will work to implement this new type of experiment in the War on Drugs. With Uruguay being the first country to pass such an initiative, no prior data really exists. Uruguay is paving a new way to handle this war on marijuana with larger hopes of tackling the illegal drug trade without taking the financially-driven path of American legalizers.
What do you think? Should the U.S. be legalizing marijuana for moral, not just financial, reasons?
By Patrick Garcia