Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Uruguay Unclear on Reasons for Marijuana Regulation

As Uruguay slowly rolls out it its historic marijuana regulation law, a new poll shows that not only are the majority of Uruguayans skeptical of the measure, there is a lack of consensus about the official logic behind it as well.

El Pais reports on the results of a Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) survey conducted in Uruguay recently, which asked respondents about their attitudes towards the new law. Unsurprisingly, the poll found that around two-thirds of respondents -- 59.9 percent --  said they opposed it, a number that has stayed roughly constant (dropping by perhaps a few points) since President Jose Mujica first proposed marijuana legalization in mid-2012. What is surprising, however, is the wide variation in perceptions of the reasoning behind the measure.

Despite the fact that the issue has dominated local headlines for months, 18.5 percent of Uruguayans said they did not know why the government was moving to regulate the black market for marijuana.  And even though civil society groups like the Regulacion Responsable coalition have been organizing forums and running an extensive public awareness campaign over the past year to flesh out the government’s discourse on the issue, the largest bloc of respondents -- 37 percent -- said they believe that the goal of the law is to prevent crime and combat drug trafficking, which is the narrative most commonly put forward by the Mujica administration.

The other main arguments used by marijuana regulation advocates -- that the law will address an existing social reality that is currently unchecked, and that it will improve public health by increasing access to medicinal marijuana and reducing users’ exposure to more harmful drugs -- did not appear to register. Just 10 percent said they believed the law aimed to address an existing reality, and 6.6 percent said health reasons were the motive for its passage.

Meanwhile, 10 percent believed the marijuana regulation law was passed to bring in money, 5.5 percent said it was an attempt to get an electoral boost, and 12.3 percent gave other responses, which according to El Pais included that the law is “due to other interests and that it seeks to distract people from real problems.”

All of this suggests that, deliberately or not, the law has been sold to the public largely as a citizen security initiative, and -- as I have argued in the past -- will likely be evaluated on these terms. Unfortunately for supporters of the law, crime trends do not appear to be on the government’s side at the moment. Homicides, which saw a record high in 2012, remained stable over the course of last year, and both violent and non-violent robberies saw slight increases in 2013, according to official figures released in April.  

While Uruguay has one of the lowest crime rates in the Americas, security is a major issue right now. Compared to elsewhere in the region, the country is behind only Venezuela in terms of the percentage who list insecurity as their greatest concern (36 compared to 47 percent). With October’s presidential elections fast approaching, the link between marijuana and security policy could leave the ruling Frente Amplio coalition vulnerable to criticism from the opposition.


News Briefs
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero offers a look at how the “país do futebol” has soured on the World Cup before it begins this week in Brazil. The surprising public apathy towards the event, Romero notes, reflects discontent with a persistent drop in economic growth and shortcomings with public services.
  • A metro workers’ strike that paralyzed transportation in São Paulo for the past five days has been suspended, although the union has threatened to resume it on Thursday -- the day the World Cup begins -- if fired workers aren’t reinstated. And as the Wall Street Journal notes, Rio de Janeiro state metro workers are also threatening to walk off the job this week if demands for a raise are not met. A separate group active in recent weeks, the Homeless Workers' Movement (MTST), has also gained concessions from the government ahead of the Cup. A MTST representative told O Globo yesterday that its planned protests during the Cup would be “less intense” after officials said they would expand public housing policies.
  • In a recent op-ed for the Miami Herald, U.S.-Latin America relations expert Greg Weeks argues that the Obama administration’s lack of a “grand strategy” in favor of a more case-by-case approach to dealing with the rest of a hemisphere is a good thing, pointing to examples where a large-scale policy has backfired for U.S. interests.
  • The L.A. Times offers a look at the endemic corruption in Mexican politics, profiling the case of a former mayor in Nayarit who is running for office again, and who openly admitted to pocketing public funds, albeit “only a little.”
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his main electoral challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, had the second televised debate of the runoff campaign last night. El Tiempo reports that the two focused on three main issues: the peace process, the economy and military policy. La Silla Vacia offers a side-by-side comparison of both candidates’ positions, finding that despite their opposing stances on peace talks, they differ surprisingly little on other policy matters.
  • Colombia’s FARC guerrillas have declared a unilateral ceasefire ahead of Sunday’s presidential elections, their fourth such ceasefire since negotiations with the government began in Havana.
  • Over at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights, Hugo Perez Hernaiz profiles recent criticism of the Maduro administration from the left in the country, a sign that Chavista leaders in the ruling United Socialist Party could face backlash from their base ahead of an upcoming party congress next month.
  • Yesterday, Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou became the first sitting vice president to testify before a judge in the country. Last week a federal court ordered him to testify regarding allegations that he abused his position as economy minister in 2010 to help a printing company get out of tax obligations. As La Nacion reports, the judge denied Boudou’s request to have the hearing televised live. A decision on whether criminal charges will be filed against him is expected later this month.
  • Cuban authorities announced Monday that eight people had been arrested in connection with a scandal involving the sale of university entrance exams to students. As a result of the incident, thousands of high school students were forced to retake the tests.