Uruguay is a small country trying a big experiment.
The country of 3.3 million people, tucked between Brazil and Argentina, has legalized marijuana, a variation of the policy rather loosely articulated by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in Canada.
Uruguay's decision to legalize pot doesn't do justice to what's actually happening. Cannabis is being legalized all right, but the product is being regulated by the state as never before.
Senior Uruguayan officials insist that the legislation's aim is to reduce cannabis consumption and encourage the population, especially young people through education programs, to resist using the product. In other words, legalization is a way of reducing consumption.
According to the legislation, they hope that by the state taking over the "importation, exportation, planting, cultivation, harvesting, production, procurement in any capacity, storage, commercialization and distribution of cannabis," consumption will decline.
They further believe that state control will wrest cannabis and its profits from drug gangs, since they estimate that cannabis represents 80 per cent of the traffickers' business. Hard drugs, such as heroin, are not covered by the legislation. They will remain illegal.
Milton Romani Gerner, special adviser to the Foreign Ministry for drugs, explains that "Uruguay has a long history of regulating social vices." He, like those who favour the legislation, says experience shows that for "social vices" such as alcohol, tobacco and prostitution, "regulation is better than prohibition."
Should Canada follow Uruguay's path? he is asked. "We wouldn't like our experience to be copied. It's an experiment. It's rooted in our country's cultural traditions, and it has to be adapted to the traditions of others. We would like the Uruguayan experiment to encourage others to consider the problem."
Before this experiment, everything related to the cannabis market was a criminal offence (as it remains in Canada) even though Uruguay police seldom laid charges for possession. Cannabis passed into Uruguay from other parts of South America, principally Paraguay by way of Brazil or Argentina.
Uruguayan officials believe the cross-border trade will stop because cannabis will be legally available. No marijuana sale in Uruguay will be authorized for export – the great fear that the United States has about legalization in Canada, or that it had, before some states legalized pot.
Political will produced this change. Former president Jose Mujica, an immensely popular figure and a leftist politician, used his political capital to push through the changes. Public-opinion polls suggested a majority of Uruguayans opposed the change, but he persevered.
His successor, Tabare Vasquez, won re-election last Sunday. His opponent, a centre-right politician, had promised to scrap the legislation. Mr. Vasquez's victory, combined with his party's control of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, means the cannabis law will remain on the books.
Only time will tell whether Uruguay's plans will unfold as anticipated. Only those over 18 can buy the product, and use will be monitored by a national registry. People will be allowed to buy only from the state: up to six plants at their home, or by joining an authorized club that will buy product from the state.
These clubs must have between 15 and 45 members. The number of cannabis plants each club can plant will depend on the size of the membership. The amount and type of marijuana available for purchase will be determined by the state, which will be buying the product from licensed growers.
Anyone, or any company, who tries to grow marijuana outside the law will face prison sentences ranging from 20 months to 10 years. A new government agency, the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis, will oversee the entire system.
Will legalization through regulation work? The theory is simple, although controversial: Marijuana consumption is a fact. Making it illegal has not dented consumption patterns nor done much to combat whatever medical problems it might cause.
Trying to regulate marijuana's use might eventually lower consumption and, at the very least, allow the state to get a better grip on the juiced-up varieties of marijuana that are available when the product is mixed with harder drugs.
Uruguay is geographically small and quite socially cohesive. Canada splits responsibilities between Ottawa and the provinces. It shares a border with only one country. Doing a Uruguay in Canada would be more complicated, even if it were worth trying.