Uruguay’s president says he will track pot smokers like cows

May 21

A TV camera's monitor shows Uruguayan President Jose "Pepe" Mujica speaking to reporters during a brief photo-op with Secretary of State John F. Kerry at the State Department last week. (Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency)

In just a few short months, pot smokers will be able to buy government-sanctioned marijuana in Uruguay, the first country in the world to legally permit its sale.

But please, says President José “Pepe” Mujica — don’t use the “L” word.

"It has nothing to do with legalization,” he told The Washington Post in an interview last week, while visiting Washington.

"Yes, he said, users will be allowed to pick up 10 grams a week of pot. (For the uninitiated, that’s enough to roll about 20 joints). It will be sold at rock-bottom prices. But Mujica, a former left-wing guerrilla turned Latin political icon, doesn’t want his country seen as South America’s capital of cannabis.

“It’s the regulation of a market,” Mujica explained. “The market has existed, clandestinely, for quite a while. And it has grown a lot. The idea isn’t to encourage the spread of marijuana but to focus on it, to be able to identify — we can identify how many people are affected, and the degree to which it affects them.”

Uruguay isn’t kidding around when it talks about regulation. In an interview at the Uruguayan ambassador’s residence in Potomac, a wealthy suburb of Washington, Mujica said pot sales will be tightly controlled. The government-approved weed will be grown on army bases.

And if you want to buy it, you will have to sign up in a registry. (Sorry — no foreign nationals allowed). Once approved, you’ll go to a pharmacy, or public hospital, and place your finger on a scanner that will register whether you qualify and how much marijuana you’ve already gotten. (The limit is 40 grams a month).

The price? About a dollar a gram, far cheaper than in Colorado, which began allowing the sale of recreational marijuana this year. There, buyers were paying $35 to $70 for an eighth of an ounce in January, according to the Huffington Post — about $10 to $20 a gram. (A later study by fivethirtyeight.com in April found that the median price for recreational pot in Colorado was $7.00 to $8.50 per gram, for quantities larger than a gram).

The Uruguayan government will be watching your pot very closely. Mujica, 78, a gray-haired former Marxist known for his frugal lifestyle, believes in liberal reforms — he has also legalized same-sex marriage and abortion. But don’t think he is casual when it comes to pot.

“We are going to use cloning,” he said, as he sipped tea in the dining room of the ambassador’s residence, describing how the government will track the marijuana grown on its bases. “We want to identify it at the molecular level. Because we don’t want stuff being diverted to our neighboring countries.”

Under regulations released this month, Uruguayans will be able to smoke only at home or in open-air spots. The pot will be sold in bar-coded, radio-frequency-tagged bags, with scary heatlh warnings, just like those for cigarettes. “We have closed the circle” of marijuana production and sales, the president said — leaving out the kind of drug traffickers who have wreaked havoc in other parts of Latin America.

This all sounds pretty impressive. But can it work? We gently reminded the president of another grand social experiment — Obamacare — which got off to a rather rough start on the technology front.

“We know that,” he laughed. But he pointed out that more than 300 million people live in the United States. There are just 3 million in his cattle-ranching country.

“In Uruguay, there are 13 million cows,” he said, pointing out that there is a national system to track them, involving tagging each with an electronic chip. “We can say, OK, the history of this cow — he was born here, he grazed on this field, later he was sold to this guy., We can track everything. There is no country in the world that can do this!”

If Uruguay can track its cows, he assured us, it will be able to track its pot users.

The marijuana program is not about fun, Mujica said. This is about keeping an eye on people with a medical problem.

“We guarantee a personal dose for people who have this addiction. They don’t have to go to the black market,” said the president, who doesn’t smoke pot. “But we also have a way of seeing how that person’s life is going, and, as such, we can provide timely intervention. Because what happens with people who are really addicted to drugs — chronic users — is that often they fall into crime, to have money to buy" the drugs.

During his trip to Washington, Mujica met with President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other senior U.S. officials. And how do American officials see Uruguay’s experiment with legalized pot?

“They look at us like we’re weirdos,” he said, laughing.

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