Latin America
12:20 am
Tue October 2, 2012

Uruguay's Drugs Policy: Regulating Market For Pot

Originally published on Tue October 2, 2012 5:16 pm

Increasing drug use and narcotrafficking has made some Latin American countries among the most violent places on Earth. But tiny, progressive Uruguay, where it's always been legal to use marijuana, is leading the way with an alternative drug policy.

The government of President Jose Mujica has proposed a law that would put the state in charge of producing and selling marijuana to registered users.

In the capital Montevideo, Adrian Gonzaga and Felipe Castro have a business together and usually work outside installing fiber-optic cables. But on a recent stormy day, like almost everyone else in the city, they're taking the day off: having tea with friends, eating toast with strawberry jam and smoking a joint.

Gonzaga and Castro have known each other since childhood. When they were teenagers, they tried pot together, which they got by trading tickets to a school dance. They didn't feel the effects and didn't smoke again for a few years. When they did take it up, Gonzaga says, they decided to grow it themselves.

"There's a difference between marijuanas," he says. "The marijuana that you grow yourself isn't the same as the stuff you buy."

He says what you buy is low quality, and when you go through a dealer, you become part of the illegal drug trade.

Like many countries in the region, Uruguay has seen an increase in violent, drug-related crime. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has announced that it's reopening an office in the country.

Uruguayan officials say they consider marijuana a milder drug than cocaine or heroin. They believe that if pot were legal, they could spend more time cracking down on hard drugs.

Julio Calzada, the secretary-general of Uruguay's National Committee on Drugs, says the closest thing they have to a model is the Netherlands.

"The thing is, the Dutch system has this cynical or hypocritical element, because the state controls the places you go to consume," he says, "but it looks the other way when it comes to how those places get marijuana. And it's really important to worry about that, because those people are still buying on the black market."

Calzada says the key is regulating the market. He says he believes the easiest way to do that is to have the state in on all aspects of it — that is, growing and selling to registered users.

But Congressman Luis Lacalle Pou favors a model where people grow their own pot, and money never changes hands.

"I don't think we have to start running when we don't know how to walk," Lacalle Pou says. "Cultivation, for me, is starting to walk."

Gonzaga, the businessman who grows his own pot, agrees.

He shows me the pot he harvested recently, which he keeps in spotless glass jars. In many ways, Gonzaga is like any proud small producer: He could almost be showing off a special cheese or some ripe tomatoes at a farmers market.

"It's different when you know your plants, when it's marijuana you've had since it was a seed," he says. "This one's fresher, lighter — it has a little more citrus, too."

Whether citizens will be buying pot from the state or growing their own is still being decided. But two things are clear: Uruguay wants to try something radically different. And no one seems worried about what the U.S. might think.

"The reality now is that American hegemony is being questioned more and more economically and culturally," says Calzada, the drugs official. "And that means new openings for certain debates."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Billions have been spent in the decades-long war on drugs, and yet the international trade in illegal drugs is thriving. Drug use has actually gone up and narcotrafficking has made some Latin American countries like Honduras and Mexico among the most violent places on Earth.

Now the tiny nation of Uruguay is challenging the value of waging war against all drugs. In that country, it's been legal to smoke one's own homegrown marijuana. And recently, the president proposed of putting the state in charge of producing and selling marijuana. Annie Murphy has more.

ANNIE MURPHY, BYLINE: South of Brazil, tucked next to Argentina, sits Uruguay, a country of just three million people. The capital, Montevideo, looks like a throwback to the 1940's or '50's and looks out over the Atlantic. Today, there's a big storm. And like everyone in the city, Adrian Gonzaga and Felipe Castro are taking the day off. They have a business together and usually work outside installing fiber optic cables. But since the weather's bad, they're having tea with friends, eating toast with strawberry jam and smoking a joint.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: They've known each other since childhood. When they were teenagers, they tried pot together, which they got by trading tickets to a school dance. They didn't feel the effects and didn't smoke again for a few years. When they did take it up, Gonzaga says they decided to grow it themselves.

ADRIAN GONZAGA: (Through Translator) There's a difference between marijuanas. The marijuana that you grow yourself isn't the same as the stuff you buy.

MURPHY: He says that what you buy is low quality. And when you go through a dealer you become part of the illegal drug trade. Like many countries in the region, Uruguay's seen an increase in violent, drug-related crime and the DEA has announced it's reopening an office here.

Uruguayan officials say they consider marijuana a milder drug than coke or heroin. They believe that if pot were legal they could spend more time cracking down on hard drugs. Julio Calzada is the secretary general of the National Committee on Drugs. He says the closest thing they have to a model is Holland.

JULIO CALZADA: (Through translator) The thing is the Dutch system has this cynical, or hypocritical element, because the state controls the places you go to consume, but it looks the other way when it comes to how those places get marijuana. And it's really important to worry about that, because those people are still buying on the black market.

MURPHY: Calzada says the key is regulating the market. And he believes the easiest way to do that is to have the state in on all aspects of it, growing and selling to registered users. But congressman Luis Lacalle Pou favors a model where people grow their own pot and money never changes hands.

LUIS LACALLE POU: I don't think we have to start running when we don't know how to walk. Cultivation, for me, is starting to walk.

MURPHY: Adrian Gonzaga agrees.

GONZAGA: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: He shows me the pot he harvested recently, which he keeps in these spotless glass jars. In a lot of ways, Gonzaga is like any proud small producer. He could almost be showing off a special cheese or some ripe tomatoes at a farmer's market.

GONZAGA: (Through Translator) It's different when you know your plants, when it's marijuana you've had since it was a seed. This one's fresher, lighter, it has a little more citrus, too.

MURPHY: Whether citizens will be buying from the state or growing their own is still being decided. But two things are clear: Uruguay wants to try something radically different. And no one here seems worried about what the U.S. might think about it. Drug official Julio Calzada.

CALZADA: (Through Translator) The reality now is that American hegemony is being questioned more and more, economically and culturally. And that means new openings for certain debates.

MURPHY: For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Montevideo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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