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Uruguay: Reshaping the Latin American Drug War and the Road to Legalisation

By Iulia Cristiana Vatau-


It has been seven years since Uruguay, the second-smallest nation in South America, shocked the world and defied pre-existing international norms on drugs by introducing a holistic bill legalizing recreational cannabis as part of Frente Amplio’s extensive “Strategy for Life and Coexistence”. This was not, however, the first time a new legislative approach to the destructive 'War on Drugs' came into being. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, countries such as Portugal and Switzerland were already paving the way to reform, with the latter venturing into the regulated legalization of heroin, a drug with a considerably higher potency, level of risk and addiction, than cannabis. By the time Uruguay’s cannabis legislation was taking shape, the Portuguese and Swiss models had already been in effect for more than a decade, showing outstanding progress in tackling their respective drug problems.

Nonetheless, the ground-breaking Uruguayan reform marked a shift in the international drug control system, as it was taking roots and empowering like-minded perspectives in Latin America (the region that had suffered the most under the prohibitive approach fervently promoted and transnationally controlled by the US). Previous drug policy initiatives in Latin America, such as the now-infamous Plan Colombia, have systematically focused on punitive measures and increased violence not only towards traffickers but also towards users and growers of precursory plants. These policies have exacerbated developmental and poverty issues, as well as facilitated cartels’ monopoly over an unregulated and rampant market. Uruguay’s 2013 cannabis law, officially in effect since July 2017, proposed to right those wrongdoings.

National Context:

Although Uruguay has traditionally been regarded as one of the safest countries in Latin America with a homicide rate of only 6 per 100,000 (one of the lowest in the region), it also constitutes one of the countries with the highest disparity between the level of perceived insecurity and the actual rate of victimization. Even citizens from violent states such as Guatemala and Colombia, fall below Uruguayans in the rates of personal safety concerns. The mediatization in the early 2000s of high-profile drug traffickers such as Omar Clavijo and Luis Alberto Suarez Correa as well as their extensive criminal networks, both inside and outside prison, fuelled a sense of urgency for reform.

While the national legislation adopted in 1974 and its subsequent updates from 1998 did not criminalize drug use, it still outlawed the growing and selling of cannabis, creating a channel for cheap, low-quality illicit imports from Paraguay. Simultaneously, trafficking of “pasta base”, an unprocessed cocaine derivative, emerged and caught traction in low-income areas of Uruguay. As a result, policymakers increasingly began to see legalization as a way of re-concentrating penal resources towards organised criminal networks, discouraging the use of pasta base by introducing a safer, state-regulated alternative, while including previously stigmatised actors such as growers into the licit market.

The 2013 cannabis law, therefore, encapsulated an ample plan of reform covering strict regulation over the production, distribution and consumption of cannabis, setting social safeguards under the umbrella of the newly established Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA). The subsequent emerging market was to retain some restrictions, with products of lower potency available legally and only supplied by two pre-approved companies through licensed pharmacies, whilst banning any forms of promotion. An anonymised national registry was also introduced to keep track of cannabis purchases and limit the amounts available to users thus minimising the possibilities of an illicit market emerging from the legal one.

Perhaps one of the most significant developments, however, was allowing licensed, at-home cultivation as part of non-profit social clubs, a provision that paved the way not only to de-stigmatisation of growers, but also to the consideration of a wider development strategy to reverse the damaging effects of practices such as crop eradication and fumigation, a strategy that has been increasingly adopted by other countries in the region as well.

Current Challenges:

Despite the above, it would be wrong to assume that all the pre-existing drug-related issues have vanished in the space of 3 years. The legal cannabis market in Uruguay has faced difficulties due to banks’ unwillingness to work with companies and pharmacies associated with the cannabis industry. This has hindered government efforts to prevent supply shortages and thereby diverting consumers to the illicit space. These obstacles have been particularly shaped by banks operating in states with more stringent and prohibitive drug policies, such as the US. Nevertheless, policymakers have been determined to ensure the endurance of the state-regulated cannabis market, constantly looking for ways to get around the inhospitable, financial conditions, with alternative proposals such as the set-up of independent dispensaries.

Furthermore, since taking effect, the cannabis law has been heavily attacked and criticised, particularly outside Uruguay around 2018, when transnational cocaine shipment operations were intercepted on Uruguayan land. Numerous narratives and causal inferences were drawn, linking the law to supposed sudden spikes in crime levels and the country’s prospect of becoming a centre for international drug trafficking. While some of the facts used in these arguments are not necessarily inaccurate, the direct correlation with cannabis regulation is somewhat flawed. Precursory trends such as the proliferation of gang activity in Montevideo in the early 2010s, police corruptibility and money laundering, key endemic issues in the Uruguayan society, are disregarded in these analyses that assume cannabis legislation operates in a social vacuum.

As legalisation efforts were designed mainly to protect users and growers from the perils of an illicit and violent market as well as prevent accidental overdoses and addictions that often have deteriorating effects over the quality of life, the impact of cannabis legalization on transnational organised crimes is largely secondary. Having said this, the criminal justice system is able to divert its efforts from tracking these previously stigmatised actors towards trafficking interception instead. This legislation alone cannot, however, prevent illicit activity and state institutions are often liabilities due to their enduring internal corruption and biases. Money laundering and amenable police officials have long fostered a conducive environment for drug trafficking organisations to operate in, and unless these issues are promptly addressed by the Uruguayan administration, cannabis legislation will always be under risk and severe scrutiny.

That is not to say that the new Uruguayan policies have not led to some domestic changes. As of early 2020, statistics have shown a 20% decrease in crime rates since the law took effect in 2017. Yet when looking as these reform models and their historical progress, it is essential to be aware that concrete and radical results take time to show.

Transnational Reverberations:

Going beyond the national borders and its internal politics, it is hard not to acknowledge the shaking impact of Uruguayan cannabis reform in Latin America. Prior to 2013, the closest attempt to a new approach to drug laws occurred in Bolivia, in the context of the 2006 election of Evo Morales. His “Coca Yes, Cocaine No” initiative went against the international outlaw of the coca leaf, by permitting farmers to cultivate a small plot of coca and encouraging them to self-police quantities, while also equally prioritising development assistance. However, production was limited strictly to the Chapare region (it was prohibited in other parts of Bolivia) and cocaine criminalization remained largely intact.

In the 2010s, a wider Latin American consensus over the failures of the Drug War began to slowly take form. The 13th regional summit of the Tuxtla Mechanism for Dialogue inaugurated a turn towards a market-oriented, regulatory strategy, with specific emphasis on differentiating cannabis culture from more lethal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Yet, apart from Uruguay, most other Latin American nations adopted a wait-and-see approach, being reluctant to pioneer such radical reform.

The subsequent 2013 law on cannabis legalisation became a major catalyst to a continental wave of drug policy changes. In 2017, Argentina legalised cannabis for medical use, accompanied by free of charge patient access. Colombia, Puerto Rico and Chile have similarly allowed cannabis use for medical purposes. Mexico, one of the main sites for illicit cannabis production and distribution in the region, has gone even further by striving to legalise recreational use, building a similar model of regulation to the Uruguayan one, with cultivation and distribution licenses, possession limits, complex regulatory bodies, as well as the aim to prioritise communities most adversely affected by trafficking.

On the whole, there is large continental scope for reform, with Uruguay serving as the principal guiding model in the cannabis industry, and a wider transnational shift in drug policy, allowing for better cooperation and overall effectiveness in tackling criminal networks and the ever-shifting terrain of drug trafficking. The more countries begin to reconsider previous punitive approaches, the higher the potential is to equally dig deeper into the accompanying systemic issues of corruption serving the illicit trade. As countries across the world venture into different levels of decriminalization and regulation of different drug types, there is hope that Latin American reforms will encompass sensible, comprehensive policies beyond the realms of cannabis.




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