Uruguay's Marijuana Regulation Bill Passes in Lower House

Despite the release of a poll showing that roughly two-thirds of Uruguay opposes the measure, on Wednesday night lawmakers voted to move the country one step closer to being the first in the world to regulate the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana
Geoffrey Ramsey
Open Society Institute's Latin America Program
Friday, August 2, 2013

Legalizar2013The week got off to an ominous start on Monday with the release of a survey by Cifra, Uruguay's leading pollster, showing that around two-thirds of the country has remained consistently opposed to marijuana regulation since it was first proposed a year ago. The poll found that 63 percent of over 1,000 respondents from around the country said they were in disagreement with "the bill to regulate the cultivation and consumption of marijuana in Uruguay," as the initiative was presented. Just 26 percent said they were in favor of it. This is identical to the degree of support it had in December 2012, when President Jose Mujica halted the bill's progress and called for a national debate on the matter after the release of a Cifra poll on December 18.

The latest poll did not dissuade the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition from passing the bill in the lower house, however. At roughly 11:00pm Wednesday, all 50 of the FA lawmakers in Uruguay’s Chamber of Representatives voted in support of cannabis regulation. The bill will now go to the Senate, where the FA’s majority is expected to have an easier time of passing it. The timeline for the bill is still unclear, because the Senate may make changes that must be re-approved by the House, but most expect it to be signed into law by October. 

Congressman Dario Perez, the FA holdout who has repeatedly criticized the measure, kept observers guessing about his intentions almost to the last minute. After eight hours of debate, Perez finally took the floor on Wednesday evening to give his take on the bill. His statement was surprisingly frank. The congressman compared marijuana with manure, (he called it “una bosta,” local slang which is perhaps best translated as “bullcrap”) and claimed that he was unsure of the bill’s chances of addressing insecurity or reducing the black market for the drug. Perez also stressed the unpopularity of the measure. "65 percent of Uruguayans do not agree with this bill," he said. "We can say all we want, but it's 65 percent, and we are going to put in place a law in a public opinion climate which is not ideal and doesn't help those who want to pass this bill." Ultimately, however, he said he would vote for the measure.

Perez based his vote on the fact that he is, in his words, “a man of the party,” and is willing to follow “the rules of the game” of the Frente Amplio. This was a reference to a resolution passed in May by the FA’s internal plenary which included a provision calling for the marijuana bill to be approved “in the shortest time frame possible.” The inclusion of this language was largely due to lobbying by youth wings of the Frente, including the Socialist Party Youth and young members of the Popular Participation Movement, the president’s party.

Doreen Ibarra, another FA Congressman who has also expressed doubts about the bill, also cited the plenary as his reason for voting for it in the end. It seems that had it not been for the internal resolution, both legislators would have fought the measure even harder than they did.

On the other side of the political spectrum, there were several members of the opposition National and Colorado parties who spoke out in favor of the bill, even though their leadership would not allow them to vote for it. Among these were National Party Lawmaker Jose Carlos Cardoso, the Independent Party’s Daniel Radio and Colorado Party Congressman Anibal Gloodtdofsky. The latter was especially vocal about lamenting his party’s decision, saying: “Because of the same party discipline which forces others against the bill to vote for it, I cannot vote for it even though I support it.”

The Frente Amplio lawmakers who spoke in support of the measure stressed the bill’s benefits from a variety of perspectives. Sebastian Sabini and Julio Bango, who drafted the bill, mentioned its public health and security benefits. Bango also hailed the bill as “a product of social organizations,” a nod to human rights group ProDerechos and other members of Regulacion Responsable, the civil society platform backing the measure.

Several FA legislators also spoke of the international support that the bill has received. Congressman Luis Puig, for instance, at one point read aloud the entirety of the recent op-ed written by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in support of the bill. Another lawmaker read a paragraph of the letter signed by over 100 organizations of the International Drug Policy Consortium, which praised the bill as a “magnificent effort” in changing the dominant drug policy paradigm.

In Other News

  • With much of the world focused on Uruguay on Wednesday, the international coverage of the event became a story in and of itself here. Radio Espectador reported that the vote was covered in the U.S. by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, as well as major regional papers like Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo and Argentina’s La Nacion. El Pais rather breathlessly noted that “marijuana regulation put Uruguay in the world’s media,” citing a small note in this week’s Economist, and highlighting remarks by WOLA’s John Walsh in the NYT as well as The Guardian (although the latter is in fact an AP story). On its website, La Republica emphasized a statement National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada made to the WSJ, in which he assured the reporter that the price of the drug would be kept competitive, and expressed hope that it could wipe out “80 or 90 percent” of the black market.
  • A side note on U.S. press: of all of the English articles to cover the vote and give background on the bill, it appears Simon Romero's story in the NYT was far and away the most favorable. In addition to framing the bill in the context of the regional drug policy debate and refraining from mentioning the party breakdown of the vote, Romero did not cite Monday's Cifra poll, only noting that "a majority in Uruguay is still thought to be against the legalization."
  • The local coverage of the vote was mixed, and generally divided according to the political slant of Uruguay’s conservative and progressive media outlets. Thursday’s print edition of the conservative leading daily El Pais ran the story under a front page article with the headline “Dario Perez Said ‘Marijuana is Bullcrap’ and Then Voted for the Law,” and also published an article on the doubts of some medical professionals about the bill. While it noted that the medical community had not reached a full consensus, the paper claimed there was widespread agreement that “doctors are worried about the message the government is sending with this measure, especially to the youth. What worries them is that legalization is accompanied by a reduction in the perception of the risk associated with consuming the substance.” The article ran quotes from two psychiatrists who attended the Regulacion Responsable-sponsored forum on the bill last month in the office of the Uruguayan Medical Union (SMU), neither of whom were featured speakers, only participants in the question and answer session at the end.
  • Progressive paper La Republica, by contrast, ran the story under a front page headline stressing both the bill’s Frente Amplio support and its potential to regulate the black market (“FAso Controlado”). The paper explained the details of the bill, and stressed that it “assigns a fundamental role to the state” in regulating the market for cannabis. El Observador, the second-most popular paper after El Pais, noted that Perez’s decision to side with his party “brought peace” to the Frente Amplio after weeks of internal division over the marijuana bill, and focused its coverage on the congressman’s remarks.
  • It’s worth noting that while he said he would vote for the measure, Perez also said he would welcome a popular referendum on it once it passed into law, something which members of both the Colorado and National Parties have vowed to carry out. In order to trigger an initial vote on whether to hold a mandatory referendum on the law, the opposition will have to present more than 65,000 signatures to electoral authorities, as they did to challenge the recently-passed abortion decriminalization measure in March. If they manage that, then they will have to organize 25 percent of the voting age population to come out against the bill. The opposition fell far short of this in June’s vote on the abortion law, in which only 8.8 percent of those eligible participated. They can also prompt a referendum directly if they gather the signatures of 25 percent of the electorate, but that process takes far longer, and would run into the campaign season ahead of the October 2014 general elections.
  • In a radio address on Thursday, President Mujica defended the marijuana bill, saying that it was "necessary to fight the battle against drug trafficking." The president said its purpose was to "regulate something that already exists," and make it more manageable. "It tries to end the secrecy. It identifies and moves the market to the light of day. If a consumer is identified we can intervene when he gets out of line. One thing is to smoke a joint and another is to sink into vice with nobody to throw you a rope," said the president. Although Mujica once again repeated a wish to see a majority of the country "understand the battle that must be fought," he seems to have accepted that this may be a challenge, saying: "Because we are a country of old people, we have difficulty understanding the youth, and the gravity of the problem is really important." These remarks were subsequently picked up by El Pais.
  • Radio 180 has a good overview of a recurring criticism of the bill from those who view marijuana use as a matter of individual liberty: that its requirement for users and cultivators to sign on to a federal registry puts them in a vulnerable position. This has been a major point of contention for some of the activists associated with Uruguay's pro-marijuana movement, who say they would have been happier with a bill that allowed only cultivation for personal use. National Party Congressman Jose Carlos Cardoso took up the issue during the debate Wednesday, arguing that “this law is being presented as if it were introducing a mechanism for increased liberty, but the bill actually restricts freedoms.” Luis Lacalle Pou, who heads Cardoso’s political faction within the National Party, agreed with this, saying: “If they’re not causing harm, if they’re not doing damage, then don’t bother them.” Julio Bango, during the debate, responded to Cardoso by saying that if the registry amounted to a violation of civil liberties, then individuals’ rights are infringed upon every time they pick up prescription medication, which requires a similar system.
  • On the day after the vote, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released a statement warning the government of Uruguay that, if the bill is passed into law, it would "be in complete contravention to the provisions of the international drug treaties to which Uruguay is party," including the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The Board also expressed "regret" that Uruguay did not receive an INCB mission before the bill was taken under consideration. The statement was first reported by Spanish news agency EFE and has since been picked up by local media, including El Pais and El Observador.
  • On Monday, Uruguay’s small but vocal marijuana legalization movement, which has held a series of rallies and marches in support of the initiative in the past year, organized a creative demonstration to show support for the bill. Early Monday, as El Observador reports, an umbrella group of pro-marijuana organizations known as the National Coordinator for Marijuana Regulation held a “green dawn” in the capital city of Montevideo, tying green bows and posting marijuana leaf flyers along major roads and on landmarks in the city in support of marijuana legalization. Other, smaller green dawn were held in cities across the country, and the action was picked up by Univision and El Pais, although the latter mistakenly reported that it was soley an initiative of ProDerechos.
  • Regulacion Responsable has released an impressively well-animated cartoon video illustrating the specifics of the bill. Since it was posted on Wednesday, it has already picked up steam on social media sites.  The campaign is in the process of adding English subtitles, which will likely increase its view count.

Summary by Geoffrey Ramsey