Drug Laws and Prisons in Uruguay

Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America

Uruguay has one of the most advanced drug policies on the continent. In Uruguay, the law does not criminalize drug use or possession of drugs for personal use. In addition, in recent years its national drug policies have prioritized the prosecution of medium and large-scale traffickers rather than focusing resources and energy on small-time dealers who are easily replaced. This country study examines the scope of the legislation, the policies developed and how the normative and policy frameworks find expression in Uruguay’s prison system, with a special focus on the population incarcerated for drug-related offenses.

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Much like other Southern Cone countries, Uruguay has historically served as a transit country for controlled substances on their way to Europe. An important change in the use of controlled substances, associated with their availability on the drug market, has taken place over the last fifteen years in southern Latin America, especially in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.

As an indirect effect of international interdiction policies, and as a result of other factors that are yet to be well understood, laboratories producing cocaine hydrochloride began to appear in the Southern Cone countries. “Paco”, a substance whose origin can still not be determined with certainty, began to appear in drug markets in these countries.

In Uruguay, the law does not criminalize drug use or possession for personal consumption. In recent years, Uruguayan national drug policies have focused on specific directives, for both police and judicial personnel, aimed at prioritizing the repression of medium and large traffickers, and not at small-scale drug dealers. The impact of these directives in terms of drug policies cannot yet be fully evaluated. Nonetheless, a prison crisis persists in Uruguay in which ever larger numbers of youths, and other vulnerable sectors of society, situated at the lowest levels of the drug-trafficking chain are entering the prison system.

As revealed in the Uruguay chapter of the research study Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America, most of the police drug seizure operations confiscate only 10 grams of drugs or less, usually marihuana. In other words, although the policy guidelines recommend focusing operations on middle and large-scale drug traffickers, most of the operations actually deal with cases of possession where quantities of substances are close to the limit defined as possession for use. And in trafficking cases, they usually relate to small-scale dealing. (Consult the study for these and more statistics.)

The fact that most of the drug seizure operations are to confiscate 10 grams or less, usually of marijuana, is a waste of police and judicial resources,” says Giorgina Garibotto, researcher for the Uruguay chapter. “The country’s recent drug policy objective to get the police to target middle and large-scale drug traffickers has yet to be realized in practice.”

The case of cocaine base paste (PBC) is worth a special mention because although specific guidelines exist to prioritize tackling points of sale of this substance, it can be seen that in 258 cases only two grams or less of PBC were confiscated. This brings up the question of whether it is actually the traffickers of this substance who are being detained, or merely the most vulnerable users.

The percentage of the population imprisoned for drug related crimes (11 percent) is still low compared to other crimes and compared to other Latin American countries. However, the justice system and prison systems are plagued by delays in issuing sentences, insufficient use of alternative penalties, and its abuse of preventive detention.

Those who are put on trial for 10 grams of drugs or less should be candidates for alternative sanctions, and under no circumstances should they be sent to high security prisons,” states Garibotto. “In many cases, the use of alternative penalties is a better option, as imprisonment has a profoundly negative impact on the lives of these young people and their families.”

The prisoners interviewed for this study described some of these negative impacts. For example, in one case a 21-year-old student told how he decided to plant seven cannabis plants in his plant nursery and acknowledged that he committed the crime of selling small amounts of marijuana to some people he knew. This young man explained that one day the house was raided and both he and his father were arrested. Now, he regrets that he has to serve a sentence of 2 years and 4 months for the sale and production of marijuana, and that his father, who was months away from retirement, was given an 8 month sentence for production, causing him to lose his income. The marihuana, plants, and seeds the police found in his house didn’t amount to more than 10 grams (in total).

This case makes one question whether this young man received a proportionate and appropriate sentence for the crime he committed,” says Garibotto. “Cases like this contribute to overloading the prison system without a clear justification.”

Uruguay has the second highest prison population rate in Latin America, a rate that continues to rise. In 2009 the situation of overcrowding had reached a level of 138 percent occupancy. One of the prisoners interviewed, for example, shares a three-person cell with seven other men. During 2010, the new government increased the Ministry of the Interior’s budget and a significant part of this will go to improving and strengthening the prison system.

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Systems OverloadAn unprecedented one-year comparative study of the drug laws and prison systems in eight Latin American countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.