Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to Evaluate Uruguay's Marijuana 'Experiment'

(Note: the following has been adapted from an analysis piece I wrote for InSight Crime on the main short- and long-term obstacles Uruguay faces in implementing the law.)

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica has made it clear in recent interviews that he views his country’s regulation bill as an “experiment.” Now that it has cleared Congress, the government will face the difficult task of justifying this experiment as a success to a skeptical public.

Last night, the Frente Amplio (FA) majority in the Uruguayan Senate passed the bill to regulate marijuana in a 16-13 vote. President Mujica will likely sign it into law before the end of the year, and authorities have said that its implementation could begin as soon as April 2014.

For the FA coalition, the political climate surrounding marijuana regulation is still far from ideal. Polls suggest the majority (61 percent) of the population remains against the law, and opposition politicians have vowed to repeal it. As such, Mujica has sought to reassure the public in recent remarks to the press.

In an interview with Argentine news agency Telam this week, Mujica said he would not hesitate to “turn back” from the plan “in case the reality shows us that we were wrong.” National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada, who heads the administration’s drug policy agency, echoed this in a December 9 interview with EFE, although he added that future changes would not necessarily require “returning to the path” of marijuana prohibition.

So if the law is an experiment, on what grounds will its success or failure be measured?

The problem with this is that there have been a variety of discourses being used to justify marijuana regulation in the lead-up to the law’s passage. Ever since Mujica first proposed legalizing the drug in June 2012, the government has framed the measure as a part of a strategy to reverse rising insecurity and criminal activity in the country. While local human rights groups and drug policy reform advocates like the Regulacion Responsable coalition have also stressed the health and education benefits of marijuana regulation, the administration has stuck to its security-based narrative. Regulating the most widely-consumed illicit substance in the country, according to officials, would undercut a $20-40 million per year black market, and the criminal groups profiting from it would take a big hit.  

But the public remains unconvinced by this argument. A July survey by polling firm Cifra found that just 27 percent of Uruguayans believe the bill would reduce the country’s drug trafficking problem, compared to 33 percent who said it would stay the same and 31 percent who said it would increase.  

This means that if the government continues to frame the law as a blow to drug trafficking and crime, it will need the statistics to back it up. Homicides, which saw a record high in 2012, will need to fall. “Ajustes de cuentas,” or revenge killings linked to drug trafficking, will have to drop as well, along with other indices of violent crime. If they do not, the Uruguayan government will be left vulnerable to criticism from the opposition.

An easier option for officials in Uruguay may be to embrace the arguments for marijuana regulation being used by civil society. The government could, for instance, tout the fact that less people will be arrested for non-violent crimes, or that those who use the drug can now access it safely without being offered other, more dangerous substances. Unfortunately for drug policy reform advocates, Mujica has proven less willing to use these kinds of justifications for the law. This is a shame, as polls have shown they have greater resonance with the public. An October survey by local pollster Factum, for instance, found that the vast majority -- 78 percent -- of Uruguayans say they prefer users of marijuana to have access to the drug through the state, compared to just 5 percent who say they would prefer it to be sold on the illegal market if given the choice. 

There is still a chance that the government’s narrative may change under the next administration, however. Former President Tabare Vazquez is slated to run for office -- and win -- again ahead of the October 2014 election. Vazquez is a physician by training, and may be more comfortable approaching the issue from a health and harm reduction perspective.

News Briefs
  • U.S. press coverage of Uruguay’s marijuana initiative has been largely positive. The L.A. Times notes that the law is aimed at “helping social and health professionals better observe and respond to those who develop addictions.” The New York Times points out that despite widespread skepticism of the marijuana regulation, the FA is “popular enough to expose itself to disapproval over the law.” Today’s Wall Street Journal puts the law’s passage in a regional context, drawing comparisons legalization measures being proposed by lawmakers in Puerto Rico, Chile, Belize, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago.
  • For the second night in a row, Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro called his supporters to protest his removal in the city’s central plaza. He has refused to follow the inspector general’s order for his removal, and warned that his ouster would lead to a “crisis of governability.” Semana magazine has an interview with Carlos Rodriguez Mejia, who is part of the group of human rights lawyers who has appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on his behalf. El Espectador reports that the UN High Commission on Human Rights has requested an audience with the inspector general, which reportedly does not sit well with the Santos administration.
  • A commission created by the Caribbean Community to seek some form of reparations from European countries for the impact of the Atlantic slave trade has expanded the number of countries it intends to target. According to the AP, the commission has expanded the initial list of Britain, France and the Netherlands to include Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
  • Last night, Mexican Senators voted to approve a plan that would open up the country’s state oil monopoly to foreign investment, meaning that it will now go to the lower house for approval. Animal Politico reports that the voting was disrupted at several points by members of the left-wing PRD, who accused their counterparts of selling out to foreign interests and unfurled a banner reading “No to Privatization.” The Houston Chronicles’ Baker Institute Blog highlights several of the obstacles that lie ahead before the reform plan can be put into place.
  • El Nuevo Diario reports that yesterday, Nicaraguan lawmakers approved a constitutional reform to remove presidential term limits, in effect validating a Supreme Court ruling that allowed President Daniel Ortega to run for re-election in 2011. The measure must still be ratified by a vote in the National Assembly next year, which Reuters reports is likely to take place in January or February.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama is catching flak from conservatives -- with Senator John McCain leading the charge -- for shaking Raul Castro’s hand at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service yesterday. The AP notes that the administration claims that the handshake was unplanned, with White House adviser Ben Rhodes telling the press that the president “didn't see this as a venue to do business.” Still, this has not ended speculation over whether the gesture was a harbinger of thawed relations with Cuba (see the New York Times ).
  • In other Cuba news, several members of the dissident Ladies in White group were detained yesterday in Havana ahead of a march to commemorate International Human Rights Day. According to the Miami Herald, the group’s leader and around 20 other members were detained, along with over a dozen others around the country in a crackdown the paper describes as “one of the broadest in years.”
  • The looting which began in response to a police strike in northern Argentina earlier this week continued to spread yesterday. La Nacion reports that 11 people have died as a result of the violence, and has an updated map of the riots.
  • According to O Globo, the head of the São Paulo Truth Commission has announced that the organization has uncovered evidence that ex-President Juscelino Kubitschek, who died in a suspicious car wreck in 1976, was killed as part of a plot by the military regime.