Uruguay has become the first country to legalise cannabis, taking this most radical step instead of engaging in the so-called war on drugs. Several other countries have adopted measures such as non-prosecution for possession of small amounts. In the United States, 20 states are trying partial legalisation. In Uruguay, smoking cannabis has been legal since 1974, as has been the private consumption of all drugs. In future, Uruguayan citizens over 18 and resident in the country will be able to register with the government and then grow up to six plants at home or buy up to 40 grams of the drug per month from licensed pharmacies. Resale, and the so-called dope tourism, are banned; sale in cafés will be illegal. Production, distribution, and sale will stay in private hands, but the government will control and regulate the whole process. Advertising will be banned, and so will imports or exports. The psychoactive element in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), will be at a low concentration of 5-12 per cent, and regulation will improve purity; in illegal markets, contamination often turns cannabis into a gateway drug to more dangerous substances.
The new law is, above all, pragmatic rather than ideological. Uruguay’s President, José Mujica Cordano, a former Marxist guerrilla who leads a very simple life himself, concurs with the two thirds of the population who oppose legalisation, and is prepared to reverse the policy if it fails, but he sees trafficking as a far greater evil. Uruguay had 82 trafficking-related deaths in 2012 and none from marijuana consumption. But the National Drugs Committee estimates current sales at 22 tonnes a year, with current users numbering 120,000 or about 10 per cent of the adult population. Legalisation is expected to produce annual revenues of $8-12 million, but the controlled price is meant to undercut the illegal markets. The clear aim is to take the cannabis trade away from drug cartels, for whom it is by far the single biggest earner. According to the United Nations, four per cent of the global adult population, or 162 million people, use it. The cartels have also corrupted large numbers of officials in several countries, where the quasi-military war on drugs has caused tens of thousands of deaths over the last 40 years or so. Opponents of Uruguay’s new law fear that legalisation means cannabis use will increase. The supporters point out that in 2005, when the government introduced similar regulations, including an advertising ban for tobacco, the level of use, especially among younger people, dropped sharply. The results of Uruguay’s courageous move will be closely watched around the world.