Pubdate: Wed, 19 Jul 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Ernesto Londono


MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - The rules are a bit of a buzzkill. Drug users
must officially register with the government. Machines will scan
buyers' fingerprints at every purchase, and there are strict quotas to
prevent overindulgence.

But when Uruguay's marijuana legalization law takes full effect on
Wednesday, getting high will take a simple visit to the pharmacy.

As American states legalize marijuana and governments in the
hemisphere rethink the fight against drugs, Uruguay is taking a
significant step further: It is the first nation in the world to fully
legalize the production and sale of marijuana for recreational use.

"The great responsibility we have in Uruguay is to show the world that
this system of freedom with regulation works better than prohibition,"
said Eduardo Blasina, the founder of the Montevideo Cannabis Museum.

The final stage of Uruguay's marijuana law comes as voters, lawmakers
and courts across the Americas are increasingly leaning toward
regulation and away from prohibition. Supporters of the shift say this
tiny South American nation, which has low crime, a high standard of
living and political stability, is now an ideal laboratory for what
the future of drug policy in the region could look like.

"This follows from increasing momentum by leaders in Latin America in
calling for alternatives to the war on drugs," said Hannah Hetzer, an
analyst at the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors decriminalization.
"What's so important about this is it takes a debate about the need
for alternatives and provides an actual proposal for an actual policy."

But the law has been contentious for many Uruguayans. The thorniest
part of it - establishing a system for the state-controlled production
and sale of marijuana - took years to work out. Sales at pharmacies
start on Wednesday.

Government officials worried that allowing a cannabis scene like the
one in Amsterdam would make Uruguay a pariah among neighboring
countries wary about legalization. So they developed an onerous
registration process and ruled out marketing the country as a mecca
for pot tourism. Under the law, only Uruguayan citizens and legal
permanent residents are allowed to purchase or grow pot.

The government limits how much people can buy each week. And in an
effort to undercut drug traffickers, it is setting the price below
black market rates, charging roughly $13 dollars for 10 grams, enough
for about 15 joints, advocates say. The law also bars advertising and
sets aside a percentage of proceeds from commercial sales to pay for
addiction treatment and public awareness campaigns about the risks of
drug use.

"These are measures designed to help people who are already users
without encouraging others who don't consume," said Alejandro
Antalich, the vice president of the Center of Pharmacies in Uruguay,
an industry group. "If this works as planned, other countries could
adopt it as a model."

One of the main architects of Uruguay's pot legalization law was
Sebastian Sabini, a scrappy lawmaker who introduced a bill in 2011 as
a newly elected member of Congress from the leftist Broad Front
coalition, the political force in power since 2004. Mr. Sabini, 36,
who says he is an occasional pot smoker, framed the legalization as a
matter of social justice.

"The sectors that bear the brunt of drug policies are the poorest
ones," he said. "The ones who are sent to jail are the poor people."

That rationale resonated with the president at the time, Jose Mujica,
a former guerrilla leader and political prisoner who championed other
contentious policies, including the legalization of same-sex marriage
and the decriminalization of abortion. By legalizing the production
and sale of marijuana, Mr. Mujica reasoned, Uruguay stood to drive
drug traffickers out of business.

"Worse than drug addiction is drug trafficking," Mr. Mujica said in a
2014 interview with laSexta, a Spanish news network.

Uruguay's law has been rolled out in phases. After its passage in
December 2013, users who registered with the government were allowed
to grow as many as six plants at home for personal use. To date,
nearly 7,000 people have done so. The legislation also allowed "clubs"
of as many as 45 people to operate grow houses with 99 plants for
members' personal use.

For commercial sales, some pharmacy executives offered to run the
distribution, noting they already had mechanisms to control the
disbursement of powerful medications. While that may not seem
particularly relevant for the recreational sale of marijuana, it fit
the government's vision for a framework that would allow, but not
promote, marijuana use.

While several pharmacists were eager to become pot dealers, some were
adamantly opposed.

Juan Jose Rodriguez, who has run an independent pharmacy with his wife
here in the capital, Montevideo, for 17 years, said the law put
Uruguay on a dangerous course.

"If you legalize marijuana, do you then legalize cocaine, ecstasy?" he
said. Since the law passed, Mr. Rodriguez said, he smells pot
everywhere he goes.

"Before, marijuana smokers smoked somewhat discreetly because it was
something that society frowned upon, it wasn't allowed, you knew you
were doing something that wasn't legal," he said. "Now people smoke
with absolute ease."

That's just as it should be, argued Martin Moron, the trombonist of La
Abuela Coca, a popular band in Uruguay, who is a registered pot grower
and habitual smoker. During his youth, Mr. Moron said, buying
marijuana meant wading into sketchy parts of town, which often felt
unsafe and unseemly.

That has changed drastically, he said. When a teenage neighbor stole
the marijuana plants growing on his patio a few months ago, Mr. Moron
did something that few pot growers would have thought possible in the
past: He called the cops to report the theft.

"After years and years hiding, I couldn't believe I let the cops in to
inspect what remained of my plants," he said, laughing.

During the years Uruguay spent methodically rolling out its marijuana
law, legalization advocates made gains in several other countries in
the hemisphere.

The debate started to shift as former Latin American presidents began
to argue that the Washington-led war on drugs had failed. The
international community, they said, needed to allow countries to come
up with drug policies aimed at meeting each country's challenges,
emphasizing addiction treatment and reducing mass incarceration. As a
handful of American states legalized marijuana, Latin American
presidents felt emboldened to put legalization on the table.

"How does one explain to a Colombian peasant in a rural community in
the southwest of the country that he will be prosecuted under criminal
charges for growing marijuana plants, while a young entrepreneur in
Colorado finds his or her legal recreational marijuana business
booming?" President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia wrote in a 2016
op-ed in The Guardian.

In 2013, Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala called for a United Nations
special session with the intent of softening international narcotics
policy agreements. While the session, held in 2016, did not lead to
major breakthroughs, several countries have begun taking action on
their own.

Colombia in recent years has embraced a medical marijuana industry.
Mexico's Supreme Court in 2015 dealt a blow to the country's drug laws
by ruling that individuals had a right to grow marijuana for personal
use. Medical marijuana bills have been debated in Argentina and Costa
Rica this year. Jamaica legalized marijuana for medical, religious and
scientific use in 2015. Canada is expected to allow the sale of
marijuana for recreational use starting in 2018.

As support for decriminalization grew at home and in the region, the
Obama administration took a relatively lenient approach. The Trump
White House has yet to articulate a broad foreign policy approach to
narcotics, but advocates for legalization are wary.

"We don't see any champions for our cause," said Ms. Hetzer, the
analyst. "We're very concerned in general that the momentum around
criminal justice reform and the effort to reduce mass incarceration is

But Washington's views on drug policy appear to carry less weight than
ever these days, even in countries that have traditionally been allies.

"Today, what the United States says has never mattered less," said Mr.
Blasina, the museum founder. "We don't see its president as a
reasonable individual whose opinion is worth anything."
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