President of Uruguay Calls for Legal Regulation of Marijuana

Press Release June 20, 2012
Media Contact

Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Ethan Nadelmann 646-335-2240</p>

Yesterday, the government of Uruguay announced that it will submit a proposal to legalize marijuana under government-controlled regulation and sale, making it the first country in the world where the state would sell marijuana directly to its citizens. According to local media, the law would make marijuana legally available in government-authorized locations under certain criteria: there would be a national registry of consumers; sales would only be legal for adults over 18 years; there would be a maximum amount available per month per consumer; and strict quality controls would be ensured. The price of marijuana would be set by the government and taxes from the sales would finance treatment and rehabilitation of drug addicts. The proposal was drafted by Uruguayan President José Mujica and his staff and requires parliamentary approval before being enacted.

The aim of the measure is to combat the rising insecurity and crime in Uruguay by removing the profits of marijuana sales from drug gangs, separating the marijuana market from those for other illegal drugs, and avoiding marijuana users’ exposure to drug dealers who also sell coca paste and cocaine. Despite Uruguay being one of the safest countries in Latin America, it has faced an increase in crime from drug gangs due to its position on a drug transit route to Europe via West Africa. This increase in trafficking has also led to an increase in Uruguayan coca paste users. Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro told reporters on Wednesday: "It's a fight on both fronts: against consumption and drug trafficking. We think the prohibition of some drugs is creating more problems to society than the drug itself."

Possession and consumption of marijuana was never criminalized in Uruguay. In an interview in May, when asked about the legalization of marijuana, President Mujica replied, “I do not have the moral authority to stop the children from cultivating [marijuana] if I have smoked tobacco all of my life. Am I going to be an old conservative? As with everything, it should have limits, nothing should happen for smoking a few joints but that is not the same as being drugged up all day.”

Statement from Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance:

“President Mujica’s proposal represents a very bold step forward. He has joined the wave of Latin American leaders calling for drug policy reform, including presidents Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), Otto Perez Molina (Guatemala), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Argentina), and Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and he has taken it one step further by suggesting a concrete policy alternative.

Uruguay is on the right track with removing criminal penalties from consumers but of course the devil is in the details.   We are curious to see how this proposal develops. A government monopoly is rarely the best form of regulation.  Uruguay should closely study existing models such as the cannabis coffee shops in the Netherlands, social clubs in Spain, and the medical marijuana dispensaries in the United States.

President Mujica’s instincts and principles are admirable.  He must now find the best way to move forward. It is a true demonstration of how far the drug policy reform movement has come when the discussion has moved from whether to legalize to how to legalize.”

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

Sign up for updates from DPA.