FLORIDA, Uruguay — Pot connoisseurs of the world take note: Uruguay is about to go where no country has gone before by legalizing the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, with the left-of-center government regulating all facets of the trade.
The initiative runs sharply counter to the Obama administration’s anti-drug policies, which criminalize the use of marijuana, heroin and cocaine and rely on tough interdiction tactics to stop the flow of drugs from Latin America.
But Julio Rey is eagerly preparing for the day when he and his friends can form a cannabis club to grow marijuana in the lot next to his home in this sleepy farming town 60 miles north of the capital, Montevideo.
“To be a grower, once this is up and running, will be something like being a sommelier,” said Rey, 38, who already has eight budding plants he lovingly tends in two specially lighted cabinets.
Under a bill approved by the lower house of the General Assembly and facing a Senate vote in weeks, Uruguayans will be able to grow up to six plants in their homes. Cooperatives of up to 45 members will be able to cultivate up to 99 plants for their own use.
Growers in places such as this rural town would also likely produce for the larger market, selling their harvest to the government. The drug would be supplied to pharmacies, the only retail outlets allowed to sell to individual buyers. Users will have to sign up in a federal registry, and it will be illegal to sell pot to children or foreigners.
“This proposal is in line with Uruguayan culture and the role the state has historically had in regulating social vice,” said Sebasti
What the government of President Jos
The Uruguay proposal is similar to the law in one U.S. state, Colorado, where users will soon be able to buy marijuana at licensed stores and grow a small amount at home. And the Netherlands long ago legalized consumption, with smokers enjoying joints in special cafes. But cultivation there is banned, and no other country has moved to make the production and mass distribution of marijuana legal.
Julio Calzada, director of the government’s National Drug Board, said the objective is to dismantle a black market that has been supplying Uruguay’s 25,000 habitual users with cheap marijuana smuggled in from Paraguay. Although this country is among the safest in the region, it has seen a slight spike in homicides and robberies that has generated a perception of insecurity among Uruguayans.
Calzada said the new system would shrink the illegal market for marijuana, valued at $20 million to $30 million, and the amount of crime associated with it. “People traffic drugs to make money, and we are taking that away,” he said. “We’re not saying that we’re going to end the black market. We’re saying we’re going to seriously upset it.”
Uruguay’s new drug strategy is a challenge to the U.S. counter-narcotics strategy. President Obama has said that legalization of drugs is not a workable recourse, even as some leaders in Latin America have called for a new policy in the face of soaring numbers of dead in the drug war in Mexico and Central America.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Pooja Jhunjhunwala said that while Uruguayans can decide which drug policies are most appropriate, the Uruguayan government “has the obligation to comply with its international treaty commitments.” She was referring to the 1961 U.N. convention on drug control, which prohibits the distribution, possession and use of marijuana and other drugs.
But Kevin A. Sabet, a former drug policy adviser in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, said Uruguay was taking a huge risk.
“I think they should understand that they’re on the brink of creating a public-health crisis,” said Sabet. He is co-founder of an advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, that proposes education and treatment for users but not jail sentences or legalization of drugs.
He said the Uruguayan bill’s ban on selling marijuana to young people and foreigners will ensure that the black market will continue to operate.
“You’ll have generations of Uruguayans growing up seeing marijuana as a rite of passage to adulthood,” Sabet said.
Here in Uruguay, Ver
“We’re a laboratory where we don’t know the consequences,” she said. “There’s no scientific evidence that says the narcotraffickers will say, okay, we can’t operate in Uruguay, we’ll go somewhere else.”
What is clear is that legalizing the marijuana trade will bring people who grow marijuana into the open. Marijuana use has been decriminalized here since the 1970s.
Among the most dedicated advocates of legalizing marijuana is Juan Vaz of the Uruguayan Association of Cannabis Studies, a group that examines everything from the tricks of growing the perfect plant to the ways in which the illegal trade works. Vaz, 46, calls himself a “guerrilla planter,” cultivating in secrecy to stay a step ahead of the authorities. He’s paid the price, having been arrested for his hobby.
With legalization, he said, cultivators here will be able to breed what he calls a “marvelous plant” that will offer a better smell and taste and a more potent high than the Paraguayan product, which he says is cultivated with little attention to detail and then pressed into bales that damage the quality.
“If done right, this product will be so good that customers will pay two times or three times what they paid on the black market,” said Vaz, speaking in an apartment withall manner of supplies to grow marijuana, from special fertilizers to peat moss.
The government is hoping that marijuana produced through a regulated system, though, won’t be so expensive.
Indeed, Calzada told the Montevideo newspaper El Pa
Here in the town of Florida, Rey said recently he is giddily awaiting the go-ahead to plant next to his house.
Rey walked in the overgrown lot next to his home and spoke enthusiastically about the freedom he will feel growing six-foot-high plants of cannabis sativa and its cousin, cannabis indica. He said he and his friends would hold barbecues to deal with the inevitable munchies that come with smoking.
“As you know, that’s one of the inconveniences,” Rey said with a laugh. “You want to eat everything you can get your hands on.”