Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Uruguay’s Marijuana Bill Faces Legal Hiccup

The opposition in Uruguay has challenged the legality of the Frente Amplio’s (FA) marijuana regulation bill, invoking a constitutional ban on legislation creating newly-funded institutions one year before a general election.

Meanwhile, there have been mixed reports about the FA’s next move. While some local outlets claim that the ruling coalition will continue with its plan to pass the measure unchanged in the Senate next month, others are reporting that it will have to be sent back to the lower house to be altered. The necessary changes would involve stripping funding from the proposed law’s regulatory body, a move which could have serious consequences for its implementation.

Yesterday, El Pais reported that the Senate Health Committee, which is currently assessing the bill, moved to consult with legislative specialists about the legality of passing the bill in November. This was done at the request of the committee’s president, opposition Colorado Party member Alfredo Solari.

In a surprise development, the Parliamentary Legislative Studies Department found fault with a provision in the bill related to the allocation of resources for the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA). According to El Pais, it particularly objected to Articles 17 and 24 of the bill (available in .pdf here), which name the IRCCA as the main regulatory agency of the law and provide its director with a salary allocated by the executive branch. This allegedly violates Article 229 of the Constitution, which prohibits lawmakers from passing bills which “generate expenses, fees or create budgets” less than year before general elections (In this case October 26, 2014).

With the bill still in committee and the Senate nowhere near a full-floor debate on the measure, it looks as though the one-year deadline will pass with no vote. As a result, the paper claimed that the FA would have no choice but to alter send it back to the lower house, so that the offending passages could be removed. Senator Luis Gallo, the ranking FA senator on the Health Committee, reportedly confirmed this plan to El Pais.

However, it seems this plan may have changed following a meeting of Frente leaders yesterday. This morning Montevideo Portal and La Red21 report that the ruling coalition is pressing forward with plans to hold a Senate vote on the bill next month, and appears to be pushing back on the suggestion that the current version of the bill violates the constitution. Both news sites quote subsequent public remarks by Senator Gallo, who told reporters he was confident the bill did not break the law, because the IRCCA is a “a legal entity and not of the state, so [launching it] is a private right.”

This sounds like the FA has consulted with legal specialists who have determined that the law is within the bounds of the constitution. For supporters of marijuana regulation, this is good news because it suggests that the IRCCA will be  up and running as soon as possible, which will in turn help the government meet its goal of having marijuana available for sale (for a price of around $1 USD per gram, according to authorities) in pharmacies by August 2014. Passing an altered version of the bill without the IRCCA would change it entirely, as the institute’s proper function will be key to the law’s success.

At the same time, if Gallo and the FA leadership have miscalculated, and the law is successfully challenged in court, it would be disastrous for the bill’s backers.  Polls show that 63 percent of Uruguayans oppose marijuana legalization, and while this number is falling (and has been shown to be far lower when respondents are asked more in-depth questions), questions about the legality of the bill would surely fuel public doubt about it. Members of both the opposition Colorado and National parties have said they plan on gathering signatures to trigger a referendum on the law once it is passed, and a high-profile legal battle over the measure would suit their agenda perfectly.


News Briefs
  • The death toll in an attack by armed coca-growers on police and military in Bolivia’s northwest Apolo region over weekend has risen to four. The AP reports that the bodies were found after coca growers released six security personnel who were taken hostage. It is the first deadly attack on a forced eradication team under the administration of President Evo Morales, and his administration appears to be taking the incident quite seriously. Thirteen coca growers have been arrested in connection with the attack, and La Razon reports that officials have accused the local cocalero association of links to Peruvian criminal groups.
  • On the subject of Peruvian criminal networks in Bolivia, Peru’s IDL-Reporteros has published an in-depth look at the rise of aerial routes being used to ship cocaine out of the Peruvian VRAE region and the central Pichis-Palcazu Valley.  Instead of heading north to Colombia, as these flights did in previous decades, they are increasingly going south, to Bolivia, IDL-Reporteros reports.  According to a source consulted by the news site, many of these aerial routes head through highly militarized areas in the VRAE, raising the prospect of military collusion with the drug trade in Peru.
  • It seems Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes can’t escape from relatives who embarrass him publicly. Days after Cartes’ uncle was jailed for smuggling in 450 kilos of marijuana to Uruguay, his son  was arrested for allegedly punching a guest outside a party hosted at his condo in Miami.
  • Colombia’s Semana magazine reports that the head of the official negotiating team for peace talks with FARC rebels, Humberto de la Calle, has called on Colombian politicians to avoid attacking the peace process in the upcoming election season. “Nothing would be historically more reprehensible if we eventually reached an agreement in Havana, and this was wasted by internal divisions,” De la Calle said. “This is the time to set peace peace above our differences.” He also echoed remarks made by President Juan Manuel Santos yesterday, who assured Colombians that any changes to the country’s democratic system were completely off the negotiating table in Havana.
  • Despite major protests in Rio de Janeiro yesterday against an auction of the right to develop an offshore oil field, O Globo reports that the government announced that the contract would go to a lone bid submitted by a consortium led by state-run company Petrobras  and four foreign corporations. Al-Jazeera English has a good overview of yesterday’s demonstrations, which participating unions framed as selling national assets to foreigners.
  • BBC Mundo contrasts the reaction to news that the NSA spied on private communications of officials in France and Mexico. Whereas the former has called on its U.S. ambassador for consultation, the Mexican response has been notably less confrontational, with the Foreign Ministry merely releasing a statement in protest. According to the BBC’s Alberto Najar, this is likely due to a long tradition of collaboration between Mexican political elites and U.S. intelligence agencies.
  • Despite the alarming figures suggesting that some 26,000 people have gone missing in Mexico’s drug war, there is evidence to suggest this number may be inflated depending on the nature of each case. For example, Animal Politico reports that 55 percent of those reported as missing or disappeared in Mexico City this year have returned. Obviously this number is more to do with runaway youths than enforced disappearances by corrupt security officials, which is partially why earlier this month a senate committee proposed the creation of distinct legal codes to distinguish the two, El Universal reports.
  • The New York Times reports on a budding movement in Mexico to reform the country’s broken mental health system. Some of the most active civil society groups in this movement are associations of psychiatric patients, who are setting up creative ways to struggle against rampant discrimination and disenfranchisement  in Mexican society.
  • The NYT also provides an overview of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s decision to build  a partnership with Chevron corporation, in order to pursue drilling in a promising shale oil reservoir in Patagonia. The move has earned Fernandez censure from critics and supporters alike, many of whom cite Ecuador’s ongoing battle with the oil giant over an Amazon pollution case.
  • Panamanian officials have announced that they will release 33 of 35 crew members on board the North Korean ship detained three months ago for attempting to smuggle Cuban weapons through the Panama Canal. Two of them, the captain and his assistant, were found to be aware of the cargo’s contents, and may face trial. The government of Panama has insisted that much of the military equipment it found was in working order, despite Cuba’s claims that the weapons were largely obsolete.