By Alfredo Pascual
I will never forget the watershed moment when, in December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to completely legalize marijuana on a nation-wide level.
I was away from my home country, so I couldn’t take part in the celebrations. Due to the fact that I missed the moment perhaps, I kept some healthy dose of skepticism while still being happy that something new was about to be implemented. Uruguay was finally going to embark on a revolutionary alternative to the world-wide and decades-long failed war on drugs.
Marijuana isn’t good or bad. The best thing to do with debates between those who claim cannabis will solve all our problems and those who claim it is one of the deadliest things on Earth is to avoid them.
Something similar happens with marijuana legalization. It isn’t a matter of “yes” or “no,” but mostly about how. It was pretty clear that the government legalizing cannabis in Uruguay had very paternalistic leaders spearheading the efforts, including former President José “Pepe” Mujica.
For instance, “El Pepe” has claimed that he favors coerced rehabilitation, a reason more than enough to remain skeptical of his proposals. In addition, it wasn’t convincing that the arguments used in Uruguay to legalize marijuana were mostly centered on vague public health and public security promises instead of addressing individual liberty issues. Regardless, December 2013 was a moment to celebrate.
[adrotate group=”7″]In April 2014, the Uruguayan government unfolded the regulatory framework. It included a state-enforced oligopoly, production and consumption quotas, price-fixing, coerced registrations, and many other characteristics that usually peeve liberty-minded people.
Overly-regulated and centrally planned markets rarely work the way their designers intend. One need not be an expert in economics to know this, but rather visit the many examples in history that show this theme.
It’s been more than two years since marijuana was legalized in Uruguay. What can be observed? I visited Uruguay three times since the legalization, and I interviewed relevant policy-makers and activists about how legalization is working.
The new recreational cannabis legislation allows users legal access in just one of the following three ways:
Grow at Home
Home-growing is working, though mostly in a grey area. This is because there’s a government database where those who want to legally have plants at home need to register, and most of the home-growers don’t want to.
The government states that the register is for your own protection, but it’s hard to blame home-growers for being skeptics after decades of state persecution; especially when the actual president, Tabaré Vázquez, played with the idea of using the database to “rehabilitate” users.
Police harassment has also been a problem. Until recently, law enforcement agents had no idea what to do. For instance, they didn’t know if they should seize plants or not, or if they could ask for proof of registration. Although there was quite a lot of confusion, it seems it was corrected. It’s also understandable that these changes need some time.
In any case, I personally saw home-growing everywhere. It wasn’t uncommon before legalization, but now the number of grow-shops skyrocketed. Last month I attended the massive 2015 Uruguayan Expocannabis, and it was heavily focused on home-growing.
Belong to a club
The cannabis clubs are also working in a somewhat grey area. There are about 20 of them growing plants in Uruguay, but only a handful finished all the legal paperwork.
In any case, it’s good that there’s an alternative for those who don’t want to grow cannabis at home nor buy it in the black-market. For a sign-up fee and monthly fee determined by each club, members can have their weekly quota of cannabis. Of course, the clubs are non-profit organizations, and the only way to have access to their cannabis is to become a member.
The number of members, plants, and cannabis grams you can receive is limited. The price per gram also tends to end up being much higher than black-market prices, but the product is expected to be much better than what you can find in the street.
Buy in Licensed Pharmacies
The big failure until now is the so-called “government cannabis.” It has been delayed many times during the past two years. Government officials repeat they are working without any haste in order to do it right, but Uruguayans are getting anxious.
The new president isn’t as enthusiastic about cannabis legalization as the one before, so there’s no reason to believe the implementation is going to be any quicker now.
Two companies, finally, recently obtained the permit to grow cannabis under strict government regulations and controls. Hopefully one day in 2016, cannabis is going to be sold in pharmacies all across the country.
The major problem with the government is that they are regulating each tiny step of the production and selling process, even fixing the price, and when the government fixes the price the whole production ends up being over-regulated and inefficient.
Drug-policy reforms should be about individual liberty and reducing the harms of the state’s reaction to drug-related phenomena.
As a result, everyone is still skeptic about seeing weed in the pharmacies any time soon. Even if they do manage to sell high-quality cannabis this year at the promised US$1 per gram price, the limited production quota will surely not be enough.
Tourists are not allowed to buy cannabis, which is only legally available to Uruguayan nationals and legal residents. However, with just a quick google search, one can find, for about US$200, a tour through Montevideo that includes a “free gift.” Hence, an example of the market spontaneously working around absurd regulations.
And what about the promises of better public health and public safety? Unfortunately, it’s hard to see clear improvements. It’s certainly positive that many users now get their cannabis from legal or semi-legal sources and avoid the terrible Paraguayan brick weed that’s sold on the black-market.
Lessons from Uruguay’s Marijuana Experiment
However, some statistics are perplexing. While in 2013 (the year before cannabis legalization) 739 persons were indicted for drug-related crimes, in 2015 that number raised to 1233. Cannabis is still by far the most seized drug, with 2015 being the historical record. While statistics can be explained in different ways, there’s one big lesson to be learned here.
Drug-policy reformers shouldn’t promise big crime reduction and consumption reduction once cannabis is legalized. This is especially true in places such as Uruguay, where before cannabis legalization, its consumption and possession in reasonable quantities was already legal and largely tolerated.
Making vague promises could end up being fuel for those who oppose legalization. Drug-policy reforms should be about individual liberty and reducing the harms of the state’s reaction to drug-related phenomena.
Some people see the Uruguayan experiment as a model to copy as an alternative to the war on drugs. While Uruguay certainly bravely paved the way for other countries to introduce drug reforms, it shouldn’t be considered the best or only alternative.
Unfortunately, there’s not a perfect way of legalizing cannabis or any other psychoactive substance. In Uruguay, things have always been done the same way: state-centered, slow, bureaucratic, and in a certain way still improvised.
One of the most important lessons is that legalizing marijuana isn’t just about legalizing, it’s rather about how to legalize. What kind of market do we want once the product is legal is the important question that needs focus.
Many local political, historical, social, economic, and cultural factors play a huge role when creating the new regulations. In the following years, we’ll probably see many new experiments and keeping our eyes open and learning from them will be pivotal.
At least now we have new experiences to learn from, previously all we had was the one-size-fits-all prohibition failure.
Alfredo Pascual received his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration in Uruguay. He works as a Research Assistant for the Austrian Economics Center in Vienna, and he’s also a Students For Liberty Senior Local Coordinator.
Originally published in studentsforliberty.org.
EspañolA number of US observers, including retired military and intelligence officers, have raised the question. They assert that Obama's policy — carried out by the US embassy, by two secretaries of state, and by the first lady herself — embodies the crime of treason. US presidents are routinely accused of treason. Lincoln was probably called “traitor” more than anyone in US. history. JFK was “wanted for treason.” George W. Bush, out of office for nearly a decade, is still being called a traitor for waging the Iraq War. Obama has something those other presidents didn’t have. He has a legion of defenders who feel he’s in need of their protection. Obama is fond of playing the little guy. But he’s an elephant, facing an army of ants. “We’re going to bite you, and bite you, and bite you again, until you fall down!” the ants keep telling him. “Oh, yeah?” the elephant likes to reply. “Well, if you ever do that, and I happen to find out about it, you’re going to be in big trouble.” In Guatemala, the elephant has given an agreeable assignment to one of his juniors. The little elephant in this case is the US ambassador to Guatemala, Todd Robinson. In line with the big elephant’s directives, the little elephant has a very broad hand in running the host country. Late last year, Guatemala elected a president that was not to the big elephant’s liking. The little elephant got the boss’s policy in gear. The Guatemalan president quickly found he could not staff his ministries with people of his own choosing. A retired army officer had been hired by the interior ministry for his expertise in breaking up criminal enterprises — which meant he would soon be putting the guerrilla militias and their criminal structures in distress. The ex-officer was abruptly dismissed. The stated reason was that the officer did not have good working relations with a UN commission whose supposed job is to guard against clandestine bodies like those of the guerrilla faction. As it happens, that UN commission is the most corrupt official body in the country. It has near-perfect impunity, and it’s in bed with the guerrilla faction as well as with the US embassy — a ménage à trois of a most peculiar kind. The dismissal of that retired officer from the interior ministry was just the beginning of a massive purge against former military commanders. The purge is now being carried out by partisans of the guerrilla movement who have gained control of the country’s justice system — and are being supported by the big elephant in Washington. The role of the newly appointed interior minister is to protect violent organizations which the UN commission has anointed as human-rights organizations. Those armed militias pretend to support the peasants, while actually they oppress the peasants and force them to take part in criminal actions that are portrayed as spontaneous protests. The guerrilla’s real target is the constitutional republic that it failed to overthrow. For most of its history, the guerrilla movement was steadfastly opposed by the United States. In 1968, the first US ambassador ever to be killed while on official duty was butchered by a Guatemalan guerrilla gang. In 2009, the guerrilla faction got an enormous boost when the big elephant — a political radical who harbors sympathy for guerrilla movements — became president of the United States. In Guatemala, the big elephant has been helping the partisans of those very guerrilla gangsters who in 1968 assassinated the US ambassador. All by itself, that last fact shows treason under the terms of the US Constitution, which specifies: “Treason against the United States shall consist … in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Along with the big elephant, how many others are implicated in this crime? In his role as ambassador, the little elephant attended the latest trial of former army officers. In the case known as Sepur Zarco, the defendants are charged with “crimes against humanity.” The case against one of them, a former lieutenant, is very curious; its handling is better described as a crime against logic and law. The former lieutenant is not actually accused of anything he did. He is on trial for crimes allegedly committed by men under his command; charged with allowing subordinates to rape and enslave women. The pre-trial judge bound the defendant over for trial even though the prosecution did not name the subordinates who had allegedly committed the crimes. The chief trial judge in the Sepur Zarco case is Yassmin Barrios. Two years ago, Barrios received an award from the US Department of State — conferred on her personally by Michelle Obama — for her work in the Ríos-Montt genocide trial. Guatemala’s highest court had earlier suspended the genocide trial after Barrios flagrantly violated the defendant’s constitutional rights. Nearly three years after the first genocide trial was suspended, the Justice Ministry is now prosecuting the genocide case under a different judge, without a defendant. The ultimate goal is for the guerrilla to be able to define the law any way the guerrilla wants — to make Guatemala a government not of laws but of a single party. And the United States, under the big elephant, is pleased to help the guerrilla do so. The little-elephant ambassador granted an audience to the press after attending that courtroom session of the Sepur Zarco case. As the newspaper La Hora reported, the ambassador “believes that this trial is important for the country. As a judicial proceeding, it’s unique in the hemisphere. He congratulated Guatemala’s society and judicial system for considering those issues. Even so, he felt that his personal presence ought not to be taken as an effort to put pressure on the justice system.” That sop to the press has no value at all, except as a suppressant. The truth it barely conceals is the aid and comfort his actions are providing to enemies of the United States, and of its Constitution. It’s fun to be the elephant in the room. Isn’t it, Mr. Ambassador? But the enjoyment might be short-lived. Closely related to the treason, an environment of treachery pervades Guatemala and indeed the United States. Under the rule of the big elephant, law itself has been degraded. The big guy and his friends are protected from the consequences of wrongdoing, while his enemies are persecuted. This is an election year. A change in political fortunes can easily flip the destinies of all the players. The big elephant might not feel the effects, but all the little elephants probably would. The little elephants, in Guatemala and elsewhere, have gone out on a limb to promulgate and defend criminal policies. Under a different regime, they might find themselves facing criminal charges. So might Guatemalan officials, especially those who owe their posts to US intervention and pressure. They might begin by consulting the definition of high treason as established by the Real Academia Española: And then they might ask themselves how they would feel about facing the consequences of their actions.