Lessons from Uruguay’s drug reform

Ten factors any country debating marijuana legalization should consider. By Eva Salinas.
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September 9, 2014

When the Uruguayan parliament approved a 44-article bill legalizing the production, sale and consumption of marijuana in November 2013, international media and policymakers took note of the small, South American country, tucked in on the Atlantic coast between regional giants Brazil and Argentina.

The Economist was quick to award Uruguay with ‘country of the year’ for its reforms that, “if emulated, might benefit the world.” On a different note, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released a statement saying it was “unfortunate” that the bill passed while the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs still outlaws marijuana.

Before long, press were lining up for interviews with the progressive President of the-little-country-that-could, José Mujica (though, the VICE correspondent was perhaps the only foreign journalist to light one up on the man’s farm outside of Montevideo).

So why has this legislation caught the attention of so many around the world? Drug reform is not entirely new; a progression of laws that sit on the liberal end of the drug control spectrum have been passed over the past decade or so, from harm reduction and medical marijuana policies, to Portugal’s decriminalization of all drugs in 2001 to Colorado and Washington’s bills legalizing marijuana, which passed in 2012 and came into effect earlier this year.

Uruguay’s bill however is the first national policy of its kind in the world; and its passing marks an official new chapter in the drug reform narrative, after a century of hard-lined prohibitive drug laws that have been largely enforced around the world.

As the global drug policy narrative changes, with wider acceptance that the ‘war on drugs’ has not succeeded in reducing the flow or consumption of drugs, legalization emerges as a policy now more plausible than ever. Several other U.S. states, as well as Mexico City, and Jamaica, are debating major reforms for the near future.

In Canada, if Liberal leader Justin Trudeau frames the issue in the right light, it could be at the centre of the country’s federal election in 2015.

Uruguay’s path to legalization then is an important one to consider. For legalization is not the end point, but a process, as U.K. drug policy analyst Steve Rolles writes in his report “After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation.” In other words, it is hard to ask what drug reform, including legalization, looks like; it can provide a variety of regulatory scenarios, and in turn a variety of results will follow.

The practical rollout of these scenarios – from the number of plants allowed to the system of taxation and licensing – is an entirely separate debate, as an analysis of the results will also be. Instead, often missing in the wider discussion are the factors to consider in the reform process itself; in this case, how was Uruguay able to pass such a wide-sweeping law?

Uruguay’s legislation “didn’t come out of nowhere” says Geoffrey Ramsey, a U.S. journalist and researcher who was living in Uruguay as the debate heated up.

There were 10 key factors at play when legalization transformed from an idea into reality. And any region, nation or policymaker looking to do the same should take note:

1. Uruguay has a history of progressive laws: Not only has the country passed fairly liberal laws in the past few years, including the decriminalization of abortion and legalizing same-sex marriage, but Uruguay was once considered Latin America’s first welfare state in the early 1900s, standardizing an eight-hour workday and guaranteeing access to healthcare. Later, in 1974, Uruguay decriminalized drug possession. According to Hannah Hetzer, Policy Manager for the Americas with the New-York based Drug Policy Alliance, this legislation set the stage for the recent bill, which passed nearly 30 years later: “ This was a change to fix a contradiction in Uruguayan law – where use has been decriminalized since the ’70s but all forms of access to it remained penalized which did nothing but feed the black market.”

2. Yes, Uruguay is signatory to the 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs: The UN said it was disappointed Uruguay “acted ahead of the special session of the UN General Assembly planned for 2016,” when it passed its recently legislation. The summit will surely debate the status of marijuana in the UN Single Convention, to which Uruguay is signatory. As of 2014, more than 150 countries are party to it. Will the international treaty system be thrown into crisis should members create their own laws defying it? Likely not. Not only is the convention “subject to constitutional limitations” that give room for domestic interpretation, but there has been much criticism that the destructive effects of the UN’s prohibitive drug law puts it in stark contrast to UN human rights conventions. “The [UN] treaties are non-binding and there is flexibility within them,” says Hetzer. “Uruguay has argued its case on public health and public security grounds and they’ve argued that the spirit of their bill is very much within UN conventions, and conventions on human rights and health and development. So I think you will find more people arguing that there’s flexibility within the conventions than changing the conventions themselves immediately.”

3. Uruguay’s popular President, José Mujica, has been one of the bill’s strongest supporters (though he says he does not smoke the stuff): While there had been calls to legalize marijuana in Uruguay as far back as 2001, the idea did not gain much traction until about a decade later, when the youth wing of the ruling Frente Amplio coalition party worked with legislators to present a ‘alto cultivo’ bill for the personal cultivation of plants in 2010. This was followed by Mujica himself putting forward an executive proposal to regulate marijuana in 2012, part of his government’s “Strategy for Life and Coexistence” aimed at fighting crime and insecurity. Neither proposals were approved but the Frente Amplio had taken leadership on the issue, which in turn mobilized various civil society groups.

4. The ruling party has fierce loyalty from its members: Though there was disagreement on the bill within the Frente Amplio, which a few members publicly opposed until the very final vote, Ramsey says “internal discipline” played a big role in the final decision to pass the bill. Hetzer adds that the support from the President and his party from an early stage was in stark contrast to the process in the U.S.: “In Latin America, the conversation is being propelled much more by politicians and heads of state, and the public is in the process of being informed about these kinds of decisions. In the U.S., it is the opposite; the public opinion is leading these changes, and the politicians are actually lagging behind,” she says.

5. The issue was framed in a number of ways, but mostly just not the “pro pot” way: The government’s messaging focused on legalization’s ability to take financial resources away from drug trafficking groups and for separating marijuana markets from other harder drugs. The public campaign by Regulacion Responsible focused not only on public security but also on public health, including the freeing up of enforcement dollars toward treatment and education, as well as ensuring access to medical marijuana, and also on “fixing” the contradiction in Uruguayan law which had decriminalized possession but not production and sale of the drug. At least two law makers, from the left wing of the Frente Amplio, made the argument, Ramsey says, that “ ‘This is us against the Imperio. We are taking back our continent against the failed war on drugs.’ ” But, he adds, all campaigns fought to differentiate “between support for a regulated marijuana market and [the belief] ‘marijuana is good you should smoke it’.”

6. Reform advocates knew when to ask for help: Hetzer was one of the many international drug experts requested to go down and help move the debate forward, bringing the lessons learned from Washington and Colorado: “Civil society organizations had been wanting to do a campaign but didn’t have necessarily the campaign experience… In the end, Uruguayan civil society approached the consultants and asked whether they would be involved in providing some guidance. The agreement was the Uruguayans would executive the campaign but they would refer to or use the expertise of the people who had worked on Washington or Colorado campaigns. So it was a joint effort.”

7. The public awareness campaign played a big part: Public support largely came about due to a year-long effort by a group called Regulacion Responsable, which campaigned throughout 2013 to increase the general population’s education and understanding of the initiative. The group was a coalition of 10 Uruguayan organizations, from human rights to LGBT rights, to environmental organizations and unions. It also enlisted 100 “notable” Uruguayans from the arts, academia, medicine, and sports, to be part of an aggressive campaign of TV and radio spots, public events and pamphlets. Not only did it help boost public support, but it made it “more safe” for politicians to back the bill, Ramsey says: “It created a political space for these congressmen to come out and talk about marijuana regulation.”

8. The campaign looked outside its borders: In addition to international campaign consultants, policymakers also looked carefully at policies and experiences in drug reform from other states. The government held a series of conferences in 2012, looking at examples from the U.S., the Netherlands, the U.K., and Spain. The impact especially of reform in the U.S. cannot be discounted: “As there’s more openness within the U.S. administration, Latin American countries don’t need to fear reprisal from the U.S. if they do change their drug laws,” says Hetzer.

9. It’s no secret the same legislation may not work for, say, Peru, Mexico or Brazil: Uruguay does not sit directly on main drug transit routes, especially those between the Andean region of South America and the United States. It does not have the drug-related incarceration rates the U.S. does. It does not have a network of organized crime like in Mexico. Policy here may have a much different, if not easier, path; perhaps more similar to countries like Chile, or Canada, even. As a result, Uruguay has been very clear to call its recent bill a “domestic issue” and has been careful not to prescribe it, even if it will inevitable be closely watched and possibly emulated.

10. It’s an experiment, with no big promises: In contrast to the unrealistic promise sometimes made with prohibitive laws of creating a “drug-free world,” Mujica was the first to admit that this legislation is, essentially, an experiment. In an interview earlier this year, he got to the point:   “We are trying to invent a path, picking up experiences as we go. There are people who say that you can’t experiment… that condemns you to failure.”

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