Uruguay’s Illegal and Immoral Drug “Experiment”

EspañolUruguay’s recent marijuana legalization has caught the world’s attention. However, since the proposal was first launched by President José Mujica in 2011, it has faced staunch opposition within the country.

Even though most Uruguayans didn’t agree with his idea, Mujica still pushed it forward before the end of his term in 2014. This rushed, contested reform passed with a narrow margin and the sole support of the ruling party.

“Pepe” Mujica is quite known worldwide. The international media describe him as a friendly, humble, spontaneous, and down to earth man. However, their narrative fails to mention his most unsettling features: (1) Mujica believes that “political priorities supersede institutional or legal considerations,” and he acts accordingly; (2) he publicly insults anyone who doesn’t agree with his decisions — whether they are professionals, blue collar workers, or UN representatives; and (3) he views democracy with contempt, similar to his late friend Hugo Chávez.

We will go through each one of these assertions:

In 2012, during a Mercosur summit held in Mendoza city, the motion to allow Venezuela to join was up for debate. That’s when Mujica’s delegation voted in favor, and he used his expression to dismiss the merits of institutional integrity. As Uruguay’s highest representative, he publicly acknowledged political motives and was comfortable with the violation of the block’s “legal and institutional standards.”

Lately, Uruguay’s Supreme Court of Justice has declared many new laws unconstitutional, and Mujica has reacted in an ill-tempered manner. Even though experts and members of the opposition have warned him about the unconstitutional nature of his proposed reforms, he and his party have gone ahead and approved them anyway.

Then, in response to legal setbacks — the overturning of unconstitutional laws — the regime’s top representatives have publicly stated that Uruguay’s constitution is too “old” and “conservative.” They have even expressed their intentions to rewrite it.

These stances and tactics demonstrate Mujica’s lack of respect for constitutional boundaries and “checks and balances” between state powers — especially those that restrict executive power. In other words, he just doesn’t feel comfortable with a republican form of government.

The recent marijuana legalization, in particular, has five unconstitutional and immoral features that Mujica has let slide:

First, according to the second article of this law, the state “will have control over the importation, exportation, cultivation, harvesting, production, acquisition, storage, commercialization and distribution of cannabis and its derivatives.” This means there will be a state monopoly over this market.

However, Uruguay’s constitution, article 85 paragraph 17, states that there has to be a two-thirds “absolute majority of votes in each part of the Chamber” for the creation of a state monopoly. The government disregarded this article and passed this bill with a simple majority in the Senate (16 votes against 13).

Second, this law violates article 44 in the Constitution, which makes the state responsible for public health, and says it should legislate “in all public hygiene and health-related matters, guaranteeing the physical, moral and social enhancement” of its people. There are several experts on drug consumption who consider marijuana to be harmful and a generator of dependency and health problems. So it would be a great contradiction for Mujica’s party to urgently approve this law, having previously restricted tobacco industries because of their harm to “public health.”

On this statement, I don’t agree with the figure of a paternalist state or the so-called “nanny state.” The people’s “physical, moral and social enhancement” is not the government’s business; however, as long as it’s established in the Constitution, authorities must comply with it or otherwise modify it, but not openly go against it.

Third, the creation of the Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) is also illegal. It creates a new governmental body less than a year out from the presidential elections, and that violates article 229 of the Constitution, which prohibits the executive from doing so.

Fourth, this law also goes against international treaties signed by Uruguay. Raymond Yans, head of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) — the UN body that monitors compliance with anti-drug treaties — expressed concern over the government’s disregard for marijuana’s negative effects on people’s health. Yans complained about Mujica’s refusal to meet with him before the bill was passed, and UN authorities have emphasized Uruguay’s signature on the Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, which prohibits the use of cannabis, except for medical and scientific purposes.

Yans stated, “It’s been two years since we’ve been desperately trying to talk with Uruguay’s authorities. It’s the only country in the world, besides Papua New Guinea, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, that has refused to talk with the INCB.” Regarding Uruguay’s decision, he claimed, “It’s a vision of outlaws, from a country that does not withdraw from the convention, nor does it respect it.”

During an interview, the president of Uruguay replied to Yans: “Tell that old man to stop lying. Anybody on the street can meet me and talk to me. Tell him to come to Uruguay and he can meet me whenever he wishes, but he should stop showing off to the stands.” This is typical of Mujica’s attitude.

Fifth, beyond unconstitutionality, the procedure used to approve this law — based on whatever works logic — is ethically suspect.

There is a fundamental principle in law that states that for an agreement to be valid, it needs mutual consent. If we are talking about a legal norm originating from government, it needs the citizens’ consent in order to be legitimate and merit compliance.

However, Uruguay’s public opinion is firmly against this law: 64 percent disagree, while 26 percent support it. These levels of disapproval have remained since Mujica first announced this plan. He may have had his party’s support to pass this bill, but certainly not the people’s consent.

Further, Mujica has referred to this law as an “experiment,” which has gained a lot of traction in several parts of the world. As this blogger writes, “Overall, I agree with the Uruguayan parliament’s decision to start this experiment: we will learn a lot from the marijuana market behavior and the possibilities to legally regulate this substance.”

Uruguayans aren’t in favor of becoming guinea pigs for other countries to learn from this government’s “experiment.” Would you like it? We should not forget that consent is an ethical universal principle in any scientific experiment.

For all these reasons, this law is legally and morally wrong, and the the Supreme Court of Justice will certainly declare it unconstitutional. If we already know this will happen, what does Mujica seek with this approval, an international spotlight or a progressive erosion of our republican-democratic institutional nature?

Translated by Marcela Estrada.

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