With Election Over, New Uruguay President Shifts Stance on Cannabis Law

Tabare Vazquez

With Uruguay’s ruling Frente Amplio (FA) having emerged victorious from a turbulent election season, the future of the country’s historic marijuana regulation initiative seems more secure than ever. Though President-elect Tabare Vazquez has continued to voice doubts about legal marijuana sales, he has adopted a subtle but important shift in his public position on the law.

On November 30, Tabare Vazquez was elected to succeed Jose Mujica as Uruguay’s next president, beating his rival Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou by 53.6 to 41.1 percent. Unlike the country’s first-round vote in October, the outcome was largely expected and the final results lined up well with the opinion polls ahead of the election.

On the issue of marijuana regulation, Vazquez has aired some doubts about the wisdom of the initiative recently. While he has repeatedly promised to implement the law to the letter, in September he worried some supporters of the law by showing an interest in using the confidential buyers’ registry for “rehabilitative” purposes. And in October, he questioned plans to distribute the drug in pharmacies, expressing doubts about their security infrastructure.

These remarks made sense in the context of the build-up to elections, especially when polls showed the FA’s congressional majority in contention. But with the elections now over, Vazquez has outlined a position on the bill that is more in line with the current administration’s rhetoric.

In a December 4 interview on popular VTV talk show “En la Mira,” (see the 52:50-minute mark in this video) Vazquez made his continued skepticism clear. “If I said I didn’t view [the law] with concern I would be lying,” the president-elect said. “It seems to me that what should be stressed is that drugs should not be used unless prescribed by a doctor. There must be education from an early age not to use drugs.” These remarks were later highlighted by leading daily El Pais, which ran them under the incendiary headline: “Vazquez concerned that marijuana law increases consumption.”

Of course, this interpretation of Vazquez’s remarks is nothing new for the generally conservative paper, but it is wildly inaccurate. For one thing, Vazquez did not make this causal connection, and has insisted on the importance of drug misuse prevention since 2012. Furthermore, as El Observador noted, the president also repeated that he would comply with the law as written and conduct a “strict monitoring process” of its results. He did say that he would support an amendment to the bill if needed, but current President Jose Mujica has consistently said the same thing.

An even more important remark that appears to have been lost on local media, however, is Vazquez’s changed stance on pharmacy sales. When asked by En la Mira host Gabriel Pereyra about the issue, Vazquez said he did in fact support selling the drug in pharmacies, at least “in principle.” This is a far cry from remarks just over a month ago, in which he said he was worried that this would expose pharmacies to the “relentless” violence of drug traffickers as a result of economic competition. “Surely they will come and tell [pharmacy owners], ‘We will set fire to your pharmacy or you will have some kind of accident’” Vazquez said in an October 23 interview with public television.

This change is good news for drug policy reform advocates. While local and international media may continue to raise doubts about Vazquez’s commitment to marijuana regulation, the president-elect is sending a message of continuity. Essentially, despite a few minor deviations during election season, this is the same message he has been broadcasting all along: he will support the law as long as it works, and propose changes if necessary.

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Geoffrey Ramsey is a digital communications officer for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). He previously worked as a researcher and writer for InSight Crime, a think-tank dedicated to tracking organized crime and corruption in the Americas, and was author of the Pan American Post.