Cannabis regulation in Uruguay: "Someone has to be first ..."

A sophisticated debate on how to manage drug-related problems is underway in Latin America. Will the UN drug control system stay stuck in denial?
Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Uruguay may be poised to become the first country to opt for a state controlled and legally regulated cannabis market for medical as well as recreational purposes, including cultivation and distribution. Announced on June 20, Uruguay’s brave proposal might indeed become the historical breakthrough in the drug policy stalemate that many around the world have been waiting and hoping for. As Uruguayan President José Mujica aptly put it, “someone has to be first.”

A sophisticated debate on how to manage drug-related problems is underway in Latin America. Will the UN drug control system stay stuck in denial? WOLA and TNI have worked in the international drug policy field for two decades, recently producing a series of videos documenting the tremendous harms inflicted in the name of the “war on drugs”. In one of these videos, Alicia Castilla, a 67-year-old woman, tells the story of how she was sent to jail for two months for growing cannabis in her home in Uruguay. Her story counters the stereotypes about cannabis consumers and dramatizes the needless suffering and profligate waste of government resources entailed in cannabis enforcement.

Story’s like Alicia’s suggest that Uruguay’s breakthrough will be welcomed across a broad political and geographical spectrum. Many of our policy contacts may not yet be able to say so publicly, but privately almost without exception they agree that the question is no longer if cannabis regulation will occur, but only when and how.

Of course a major obstacle to sensible cannabis policy reform has been the UN drug control treaty system itself; cannabis was wrongly included in the system’s prohibitionist framework from the outset, beginning with the 1961 Single Convention. Reform proposals, however mild, are attacked by the guardians of the UN Conventions—powerful countries like the USA and Russia, and UN bodies such as the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB)—as posing existential threats to the “integrity of the treaty system.”

Uruguay’s intention to opt for legal regulation of the domestic cannabis market is predictably triggering further tensions with the UN drug control system. INCB president Raymond Yans, of Belgium, wasted no time in denouncing Uruguay. At the UN General Assembly session in New York on June 26 (the “International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking”), Yans condemned Uruguay as being the “weakest link” in the global drug control chain. Yans also issued a thinly-veiled threat that Uruguay’s move toward regulated cannabis could jeopardize the country’s access to essential medicines. Such attacks are no doubt intended to isolate and stigmatize Uruguay and to discourage any other government from raising its voice on Uruguay’s behalf, or consider taking a similar path.

Now Yans is seeking the Mujica government’s permission to mount an “emergency” INCB mission to Uruguay. But the INCB president’s quickness to denounce Uruguay and the insultingly simplistic tenor of his arguments against the proposal cast real doubt upon the usefulness of an INCB mission to Uruguay in the current context. We hope that at least the INCB does not arrive with a pre-determined position, but rather is prepared to listen, to understand, and to engage in genuine dialogue.

To be clear, no one in Uruguay has argued that cannabis is harmless or that a regulated market would solve all problems related to problematic uses or black markets and criminal involvement. After years of policy evaluation and now facing new challenges such as the paco epidemic, the Uruguayan government has good reason to believe that, with regard to cannabis, a state-controlled, regulated market would be the best option for the health and welfare of its population. In its efforts to find a better control model for the cannabis market, and to find the best solutions for the legal tensions it will generate with the UN Conventions and their guardian agencies, Uruguay will be able to count on much support.

The Uruguayan government already faces difficult choices in designing a regulatory framework, including weighing options such as “auto-cultivo” and consumer associations (on the model of Spain’s cannabis clubs) as well as state-controlled licensing or even monopoly of production and distribution. A consultation process, as the Uruguayan government is now considering, could help significantly in finding the regulatory model that enjoys the greatest possible support from civil society and the legislature. In addition, Uruguay will face the challenge of reconciling its new cannabis policy with its obligations under the UN drug treaties. What exactly are the limits of latitude? Could cannabis be removed from the UN control system altogether? Might a group of like-minded countries temporarily leave the Conventions and then rejoin with a reservation on cannabis? Or does the WHO framework convention on tobacco provide a useful model for a special cannabis convention as an alternative? These are the kinds of questions that the defenders of the status quo would rather not see in print. But they can no longer be wished away.

Half a century after the 1961 Single Convention, Uruguay has taken a bold step, acknowledging that it was a dramatic historical mistake—similar to alcohol prohibition in the USA—to include cannabis in the global drug control system, with all its criminalizing provisions. That courage will inspire others, and Uruguay will not be alone.