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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson

JEFFREY SIMPSON

A marijuana measure worth watching Add to ...

This morning, Uruguayan officials will open 18 envelopes. Each will contain a proposal to grow two tonnes of marijuana on up to five hectares of land for sale to the Uruguayan government.

Within a few days, up to five of the 18 bidders (one of whom is a Canadian) will be selected, and another part of Uruguay’s experiment with legalizing and regulating marijuana will fall into place.

By regulating purchase and sale, Uruguay hopes to control the quality of marijuana, its use and distribution, and ultimately drive down consumption. The bidders knew in advance what profit level would be allowed, what kind of seed would be required, how the crop would be grown and how much the government felt it required.

The rest of Latin America, where the drug trade in all its manifestations is a scourge, is watching – as are people in far-off places such as Canada, where political parties have dived into the issue with loose talk and little reflection.

The Liberal Party has recommended legalizing marijuana. It did so in a particularly, and perhaps tellingly, slap-dash manner: a speech by Leader Justin Trudeau and a resolution at a convention. Neither showed that the leader or the party had thought seriously about the issue. No major policy paper was unveiled to illustrate that the leader and the party had thought deeply about the issue.

Predictably, the Conservatives climbed all over the issue, running party television ads mocking Mr. Trudeau’s support for legalization. As they often do, the Conservatives even used government money to buy television ad time during the Grey Cup warning against marijuana use, a not-so-thinly-disguised partisan message. So the issue of legalizing marijuana is joined, if not fairly or intelligently.

In Uruguay, legalization and regulation are being politically sold as a public health measure in a country where state intervention to discourage “social harm” has deep roots.

Advocates call the policy part of the “right to health,” an argument that has scarcely been framed this way in Canada, although it would not be hard to imagine in such a “rights” conscious society as Canada that this kind of framing might happen.

The roots of regulation against “social harm” in Uruguay extends even to restaurants, where salt is not on the table, its use being deemed harmful to health. Patrons can get salt only by asking for it.

The new Uruguayan law emphasizes promotion of information and education about the use of tobacco and marijuana. Educational policies in primary, secondary and vocational schools will inform students about the “potential damage” of drug consumption, including cannabis.

And, of course, all advertising and other forms of public promotion of marijuana will be prohibited. No one under 18 can buy marijuana from the state supplies, nor grow it in their places of residence.

Urugruay’s marijuana politics may be instructive for Canada. Polls showed a majority of the Uruguayan population against the idea, but public opinion is now shifting to a somewhat more favourable position and the party that made the change just won the presidency and majorities in congress. In Canada, polls show a majority in favour.

Sebastian Sabini, a member of Uruguay’s governing party, says that in his district, which contains urban and rural voters, resistance was highest in the countryside and among older people. That sounds exactly like the Conservative Party core in Canada: older and rural. Mr. Sabini said younger, urban voters were favourable – exactly the target audience of Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals.

Mr. Sabini says the legalization issue was not the most important in the recent election. Jobs, the economy, social programs and crime drove voting intentions. Marijuana legalization and regulation came as part of a wave of social liberalization in Uruguay, which also included legalizing abortion and gay marriage.

Mandatory voting, by the way, is an electoral fixture in Uruguay. Anyone who fails to vote without a valid reason can be fined or denied government services.

In a country that is a major exporter (and consumer) of beef, perhaps the metaphor is only a bit corny that Uruguay has taken the bull by the horns in the battle against cannabis. It has accepted the inevitable – that cannabis will be and is being widely used – and is trying to regulate its production and use to reduce consumption and crime.

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