Uruguayan parliament lights up the legalisation debate

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.