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The President of Uruguay, José Mujica, has submitted a proposal to Parliament that would allow the government to control and sell marijuana to Uruguayan citizens. Although the use of marijuana in Uruguay is already legal, this proposal would make Uruguay the first country in the world to create a state monopoly on the sale of marijuana. The legal system in Uruguay is such that the President cannot propose legislation unilaterally, but instead requires the support of one or more of his ministers in order to represent the executive. In this proposal, President Mujica has the signature of all thirteen of his cabinet ministers, indicating strong support. However, the bill still needs to be drafted in much further detail and needs to be passed by a vote in both houses of parliament following what is likely to be many hours of debate.
The proposal outlines a number of policies, allowing the state to control and regulate importation, production, sale, storage, marketing, and distribution of marijuana and its derivatives. It retains the prohibition of the private sale of marijuana and also prohibits the sale of the drug to those who aren’t Uruguayan nationals, in order to prevent the so-called “drug tourism” that has affected other countries with decriminalization policies. It also aims not only to keep the current education policy about drugs, but to expand it so that the public can make an informed, completely individual decision on whether they wish to use cannabis or not, without ostracising those who do with to use it. If this is the case, users will have to sign up to buy the marijuana from the government. This is part of a harm-reduction policy, to observe marijuana users to ensure that they aren’t putting themselves at risk through their drug use. Care will be provided for those who are problem drug users and this care will be paid for by marijuana tax.
Many of the arguments for this piece of legislation are to be found within the accompanying letter drafted by the President and his cabinet ministers. In particular, it centres on the Global Commission report that states the war on drugs has failed, particularly on four accounts:
• “The drug market has been estimated to be the second biggest global business after petrol;
• Trafficking has had negative consequences on economies globally;
• Drug trafficking has been linked to other illicit activities such as trafficking in arms, people, gold, and diamonds and has led to high levels of corruption; and
• In many countries, the state has been overrun, society destabilized, and democracy destroyed.”
This indicates the necessity of approaching the problem in a new way, a “bold” way, as President Mujica argues. He maintains that there needs to be an entirely new approach to drugs policy, one that is “grounded in human rights, equality, democracy, cooperation, comprehensiveness, participation, and scientific evidence.”
Another crucial reason for such radical reform is the central idea of risk-and-harm-prevention. Regulation of the cannabis market arguably reduces the risk faced by marijuana users when they have to resort to the illegal market to purchase cannabis. It is believed that this contact with the illegal world connects them with criminal organizations and individuals who additionally offer access to higher-risk drugs, such as coca paste. The aim is to separate the two markets, ensuring that the stigma surrounding marijuana use is decreased, whereas education on the effects of taking drugs is increased so that use of more dangerous drugs is reduced.
Harm prevention is also provided for, in that all cannabis users will be adults and will be registered on a government database. This means that use can be monitored, to ensure that any problem drug users can be provided with the care and attention they need. This will also be paid for by marijuana taxes, which reduces the cost to the general public of supporting those with drug problems.
The policy also hopes to be able to reduce crime: by eliminating the drug user’s dependency on the illegal market it reduces drug trafficking. It also means that there will be a significant decrease in turf wars between different drug dealers as they will simply not have the clients to fight over. By monitoring drug use, the government can also assess the financial capability of the user to pay for their marijuana. If they cannot pay, yet still want the drug they will be given the support they need, either in order to pay and manage their finances, or to quit the habit if it simply isn’t sustainable.
Of course, there are many critics of such a radical new policy as this one. The big question is how will the government regulate and maintain control of the monopoly of the marijuana market? In order to be able to circumvent the usual market rules, the government are going to have to ensure that their service is the cheapest, best and only option to buy marijuana. The problem is that if the marijuana is produced by ordinary people, it must be worth their while not to sell some of it themselves to make extra profit: in other words, they will have to have a really good income from the government. The cost of regulating this could escalate, wiping out the benefits of the marijuana tax providing care for problem drug users. This service will also only be available for adults, and it would be naïve to say that younger people will not find ways to obtain their own marijuana, just as they do with cigarettes and alcohol. Surely this would undermine the government’s monopoly?
Some critics also argue that the full effects of marijuana still aren’t known and that actually it could be just as dangerous as other “harder” drugs. In which case there could be spiralling health costs which again would not be covered by the marijuana taxes. On the other hand, this criticism could be countered by the fact that there will also be an increased education system on drugs, their implications and the focus on the individual’s choice and personal autonomy. In addition, there is also the theory that marijuana is a gateway drug, and will lead users to try more dangerous and “harder” drugs. However, under the proposed legislation the aim is that the market for other drugs will be obliterated by the lack of pressure from drug dealers and traffickers. It also remains to be seen whether the gateway theory even exists.
Another criticism that has been raised is whether the public will feel comfortable with their consumption being individually monitored by the government and question such a paternalistic move attached to such a liberal piece of legislation. This mistrust could lead to an increase in the black market and the collapse of the protection available for those who really do require treatment.
The policy has also been criticised by the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, who feels that by introducing such a radical policy unilaterally, it will be incredibly difficult for Uruguay to enforce these proposed laws. Without the support of surrounding countries in particular, it will be very difficult to entirely eradicate the sale of marijuana in the black market.
Without further information on what will actually be contained in the bill, it is very difficult to predict the success of this piece of legislation. The sparse details we have available seem to gloss over how the system will actually be implemented, possibly giving Parliament the opportunity to add more details after further debate into the matter. As a policy, it comes across well, but it will be up to the legislators to ensure that the implementation process is foolproof, as that is the only way such a radical bill would pass.