ESSA

ESSA

Uruguayan parliament lights up the legalisation debate


Aristidi Armstrong

By

August 13th, 2013


Against the backdrop of Uruguay’s legalisation of marijuana, Aristidi Armstrong discusses the effect this policy move will have on the citizens of Uruguay and on attitudes towards “pot”.


In this coming Australian federal election it is likely that you may come across the HEMP party, whilst you are fulfilling your civic duty at the ballot box. The Help End Marijuana Prohibition Australia Party, claims that marijuana, or more widely known as ‘pot’, contains superior protein to beef, is healthier than alcohol, and can be used for food, fuel, medicine and of course, recreation.[1]

Furthermore, it’s not only the point that the plant has so many potential uses, there is also much debate about whether the law enforcement resources allocated to preventing the growth, distribution and use of marijuana is actually worth it. Pro-legalisation advocates labour the point that, although alcohol is not only legal but easily accessible and encouraged in Australia, there is a far more harmful alcohol problem occurring in Australia, as Victorian Youth Alcohol and Drug Survey has found that 42% Victorians had drunk 20 or more beers a day in the past year.[2]

There was thus no doubt that HEMP members had an extra spring in their step on July 31, when the lower house of the Uruguayan parliament passed a bill to completely legalise marijuana – the first nation in the world ever to do so. It is expected to become Uruguayan law in a matter weeks, due to the make-up of the Senate and the position of the country’s president on the matter. Under the scheme, registered citizens over the age of 18 years old can grow up to 6 plants, and purchase up to 40 grams of marijuana per month. It has been legal to possess marijuana in Uruguay since 1974, but under this new law, production and sale will also be legal, albeit regulated. Under the law marijuana will be an over the counter item at all participating pharmacies.

Not only does this symbolic passing of the bill pave the way for other countries to implement similar schemes, it is symptomatic of a changing global attitude towards marijuana. Since American president, Richard Nixon, declared drugs to be “public enemy number one” drug related incarceration rates have increased. This has applied pressure for US law makers to move non-violent offenders, such as marijuana growers and traffickers, out of prison and instead invest in more rehabilitation in the community.[3] Even then, is it really worth rehabilitating marijuana addicts? According to Uruguayan pro-marijuana activist, Juan Vaz, pot is less addictive than coffee, and is tremendously less culpable than alcohol in causing deaths. Uruguayan president Jose Mujica argues that allowing the drug to be bought legally will separate recreational users from traffickers who may be pushing harder drugs, therefore more efficiently refocusing police resources.

The bill makes further economic sense, in that organised crime is set to lose a significant portion of its business. The money invested in the production and purchase of marijuana is reallocated to the Uruguayan government in the form of license registration fees and sales taxes. Taking the commerce marijuana produces from the underworld to the legal sphere, bolsters the GDP just that little bit extra, as it captures a market that already exists and is well established.

The illegal narcotics trade is often blamed for the epidemic of mob violence spreading across Latin America. In Uruguay alone, the marijuana market is estimated to be worth between $30-40 million per year, according to Agence-France Presse. It is hoped by Uruguayan parliamentarians that regulation will deal an economic blow to these gangsters, meaning lower gang participation rates, and thus less drug related violence.

Uruguay is a very small country, and only 4% of its population actually regularly consume the drug. However, the system that is poised to be implemented there is a true watershed and a statement on the worth of the worldwide ‘war on drugs’. Uruguay has found itself on the forefront of liberalisation ideals before. It was the first Latin American country to abolish slavery. Although there is next to no discussion about whether to legalise marijuana in Australia, the HEMP party is hoping that Uruguay can once again be set as an example to the rest of the world.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

  • Kim Liu

    Great article Ari! Big supporter of decriminalisation. Any idea of who is providing (legal) marijuana to the pharmacies? Local firms? Government? Or global pharmaceuticals? – interesting to see the distribution of suppliers and potential revenue options for the government.

  • http://economicstudents.com/author/aristidi-armstrong/ Aristidi Armstrong

    Thank you, Kim. Perhaps to add to your comment and highlight the significance of this Uruguayan bill, marijuana is not only being decriminalised, it is also being legalised. Decriminalisation has already occurred in some countries, such as Portugal. In Portugal, the drug can be confiscated from you, and you may be advised to attend counselling, however it will not result in a criminal record. This is bill in fact goes one step further than that, as it acknowledges that citizens can manage the risks themselves (much like alcohol) and doesn’t treat responsible recreational use of the drug as “wrong”.

    In answer to your question, it is my understanding that the parties feeding the supply side of the scheme, would primarily comprise of local agriculturalists, or as you phrased it “local firms”. This is because under the proposed law, citizens of Uruguay are the ones permitted to grow their own marijuana, so this would seem to rule out global/international suppliers. Unfortunately, I am limited by my low command of Spanish to be able to actually read the Act myself (I did attempt to at one point, but legislation in English is hard enough to decipher as a native speaker), however that is my understanding of who the suppliers will be under the scheme. Given that the cultivation of marijuana is illegal in most other countries, it would also make it difficult for the Uruguayan government to engage in commerce with “the black market” in foreign countries.

    I hope this answers you questions, Kim!

    • Kim Liu

      Thanks for reply Ari – and yes, a very important distinction between decriminalisation and complete legalisation – look forward to seeing where this all goes

  • Anonymous

    Evidently a sanguine viewpoint of an issue that has no more potential than being a pipe-dream (pardon the pun) in today’s Western cultures, particularly Australia.

    The parallels (or lack thereof) drawn with the consumption of alcohol clearly suggests that this article is diminutively more than an attempt at legalising marijuana for recreational use. I would not think that the protein benefits of marijuana or its use as a food source would be particularly compelling motives to legalise the drug (and, more arguably, its medicinal utility has been an issue in Australia that has gained little to no traction in the past decade).

    I believe that it is imperative to also delve into the negative effects of marijuana, as opposed to merely listing some meaningless benefits professed by the ‘HEMP’ party. It’s all well and fine to chastise the legal status of alcohol in the marijuana debate, however, would it not be more appropriate to draw parallels with the aspects of these substances that are actually problematic? For example, we are well aware of the impact of alcohol on driving. It goes without saying that one death from drink-driving is one too many. But what about the effects of marijuana on driving? The mellowing effect of marijuana, ostensibly the most desirable effect to a recreational user, has no place in other facets of our society. Some Australians in particular struggle to grasp the fact that being under the influence of something, be it alcohol or drugs, while driving is infinitely harmful to themselves and other road users. The countless advertisements and warnings by the government of the dangers of drink-driving have not seen a drastic decrease in deaths on the roads since 1980s (and in some years we have seen peaks and troughs, which suggest that any downward trend is not guaranteed to remain). What could the government possibly do to prevent the same stupidity from entering the heads of marijuana users with aspirations to drive while “high”? I would hazard at safely guessing that the rates of drug-related driving deaths in Australia would only increase as a result of decriminalising marijuana. Akin to alcohol, the long-term effects of marijuana on the user’s brain is another point worth mentioning, making the analogy with alcohol even more nonsensical.

    It’s of little surprise to me that a South American country is the first to fully decriminalise the drug when one realises the issues that governments and authorities in those countries face every day in dealing with the illegal drug trade that has cost the lives of thousands through organised crime alone. Posing Uruguay as the model that Australia should follow in the decriminalisation debate is a moot point on the part of the ‘HEMP’ party. The respective cultures of the two countries are vastly different and the problems that their governments face are also vastly different. Highlighting Uruguay’s liberalisation ideals also seems to be a moot point in this context. Slavery, a despicable and cruel practice, can in no way be compared to a society that prohibits marijuana.

    In the end, the logical thing would be to weigh up the dangers of decriminalisation against the purported benefits. As far as the status of the law in Australia pertaining to marijuana criminalisation goes, it might be well worthwhile to quote Bert Lance: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    • Kim Liu

      “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

      That would imply that the current legislation regarding marijuana (and illicit drug) use is working and effective. Anyone who believes that the “War on Drugs” has been a success (anywhere, let alone locally), whether as a deterrent, rehabilitation program or battle against organised crime, would have to be delusional, or at least on drugs.

      Marijuana is readily accessible, cheaply obtained, and widely accepted. Prohibition has not stopped people from participating in the black market, so then why do we continue to pour huge amounts of government resources into hunting down and criminalising wayward-teens and old-time-chillers? Alcohol and tobacco are magnitudes more dangerous, more costly and more disruptive to society, yet we freely allow people to use and abuse these drugs on a regular basis.

      I’d rather see resources being spent on proper rehabilitation and education programs (as well as needle rooms). And while I’m at it, I’d also prefer governments profiteering from supplying controlled substances, rather than “gangs”, “bikies” or “drug lords”; and have professionals overseeing supply methods, rather than weirdos in bathtubs and backyard labs.

      I’ll concede the proposed benefits of marijuana are very limited, but the benefits of criminalised marijuana are almost entirely wrong and misconceived.

  • http://economicstudents.com/author/aristidi-armstrong/ Aristidi Armstrong

    Quoting Bert Lance, the man who was forced to resign from the Carter administration due to a corruption scandal, is a poor way to finish a comment advocating legal and political control of marijuana.

    Kim has adeptly responded to the emotional response from anonymous, and I must say that I am glad that my article has ignited such passionate discussion.

    May I simply add to Kim’s response by saying this; claiming that the legalisation of drugs is typical of a South American country is a gross generalisation of the social problems faced by each South American country. Whilst it is true that Uruguay has more of a drug problem than, Columbia has a far higher rate of drug related offences. It almost arrogant to suggest that we have nothing to learn from Uruguay, here in Australia, because we have a more ‘developed’ legal system.

    I am also of the impression that anonymous has missed the point of the article by failing to see the parallels between alcohol and marijuana. They are both recreational drugs; and arguably marijuana produces less negative externalities, yet one is legal and one is not. However, as Kim has already informed you, the essence of this article is that it captures the economic benefit of the marijuana industry and puts it into the governments and society’s pocket rather than the black market’s. As you said so yourself, just because drink driving is illegal, doesn’t mean people don’t drink drive at all – even despite government advertisements and other efforts to curb it. The outlawing of marijuana has the same effect; people still smoke pot. So really this argument supports my argument for a system of legalisation, because people are smoking it anyway, and put in place a system of regulation instead.

    In terms of the benefits of marijuana, they are mostly recreational, however many American states have recognised the medicinal value of this drug. However, again this article is about legalisation for recreational use, and that is why the alcohol parallel is drawn.

    To weigh up the purported dangers of legalisation (you have failed to convince me that Australia will explode into a nation of ‘pot-heads’ by virtue of controlled legalisation), with the economically sound benefits which are proven flow from government regulation and taxing, it actually seems that this is producing an economic inefficiency, if not a legal or a social one. Or, as you put it, “it’s broke”.

  • Monika Sarder

    Great article Ari. I strongly agree that in most cases, where there is a rampant black market feeding criminality, allowing producers to evade taxation, and forcing users to pay a ‘risk premium’ for producers, a very strong case needs to be made for why it should not be decriminalised and legalised.

    I take the measured libertarian view with drugs that if it is unlikely to impact on others (special attention being paid to impact on children of users, impact on the road and impact on work safety which can be mitigated with appropriate regulation), just as is the case with alcohol, there is no reason not to put appropriate measures in place.

    Need to look at things like risk to persons health (short term and long term), risk to others health, addictiveness, the half-life of the drug. Probably with marijuana (cf opiates) these are pretty benign.

    I think Anonymous makes a more compelling argument in favour of a return to the prohibition era than anything else.

    All in all, interesting to see how the experiment in Uruguay goes. My one concern is legalizing marijuana will take away the only thing pot smoking hippies feel truly passionate about (decriminalising marijuana) and will end up way too chilled, leading to risk of deficiency of vitamin D from too much time stoned indoors.

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