Monday, August 4, 2014

Is Uruguay’s Marijuana Experiment in Jeopardy?

A new Associated Press report on Uruguay’s marijuana law suggests it could go “up in smoke” before it is even fully implemented. While this claim is exaggerated, the fact that new polls point to opposition gains in upcoming October elections does indicate that the long-term future of the measure remains cloudy.

On Friday, nearly three months after the law's accompanying regulations were unveiled and roughly a month after officials first announced their plans to receive applications from companies interested in obtaining licenses to grow the drug for commercial purposes, that process finally began.  According to El Observador, applicants will have until August 18 to present business plans to the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA). After that, the IRCCA will select up to five companies to begin growing cannabis.  

Despite the delay in launching the bidding process, it does not appear that Uruguayan authorities have been idle of late. Until recently the IRCCA only existed on paper. Now, it has an office in downtown Montevideo where it will be accepting applications, a staff made up of various ministry officials, and a newly-launched website that explains the finer details of the marijuana regulation law and the institute’s own structure. The IRCCA also seems to have sorted out many of the specifics of commercial cannabis production. According to the institute’s press statement, all commercial cultivation will occur on a single plot of land in San Jose Department, just northwest of Montevideo.

While official estimates place the annual demand for the drug at around 18-22 tons, initial production will be much lower. The IRCCA asserts that the first licenses will allow for the cultivation of between one and two tons per company, annually. This is likely a strategy to avoid flooding the market and allow time for users to sign up to a registry to be able to purchase the drug in pharmacies.

Still, the AP report notes officials’ recent acknowledgement that the law may not be up and running until early next year, and insinuates that this is due to a lack of preparation. From the news agency:
Experts say the delays are due to the fact that no other country has attempted such a plan and that authorities still lack detailed plans and rules for creating the market. Disagreements within the government over basic aspects of the proposal are also holding things back.
The report also cites criticism of the delays from opposition presidential candidates Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party and the Colorado Party’s Pedro Bordaberry. The first claims he is “convinced that the current project is never going to be applied,” while the latter refers to it as “one big improvisation.”

Attacks on the marijuana law from the opposition are nothing new. The consistent unpopularity of the law (64 percent oppose it, according to a July poll) has made it a favorite target of those seeking to criticize the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition. What is new, however, is the political landscape in Uruguay ahead of the October 26 general election. When former President Tabare Vazquez came out in support of marijuana regulation last August, it was seen as a proof that the law was out of jeopardy, as Vazquez’s presidential win in October 2014 was all but guaranteed.

But this is no longer the case. According to pollster Factum, support for Vazquez has been falling in recent months, while support for Luis Lacalle Pou -- who has said he will seek to repeal the law’s authorization of commercial pot sales -- has been growing. In a February survey, Factum found 59 percent support for Vazquez, and 34 percent for Lacalle Pou. In April, these numbers were at 55 and 40 percent, and Factum’s July poll shows this trend continued, with 51 percent for Vazquez and 46 percent for the National Party candidate.

Added to this is the fact that, as the AP notes, most polls -- see Cifra or Equipos Mori surveys from July  -- show voter intention for the FA at around 43 percent, making the odds that the coalition can hold on to its current majority in the Senate and lower house of Congress seem slim.

Ultimately, it’s still too early to tell with certainty what these numbers mean for the future of marijuana regulation in Uruguay. But with the FA’s control of the presidency and Congress in doubt, and the public largely in favor of repealing the law rather than waiting to see its effects, supporters of drug policy reform in the region have reason to be concerned.

News Briefs
  • Following up on its reporting on the failed ZunZuneo initiative, the Associated Press has another bombshell today regarding USAID operations in Cuba. According to the AP, contractors hired by the U.S. humanitarian agency secretly paid nearly a dozen young adults from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to recruit and identify potential youth opposition leaders on the island, using health and civic programs as cover. The visits occurred over the course of two years, from 2009 to 2011, and the entire program is remarkable for the lack of security training given to participants in spite of the risks involved. In the end, as the AP points out in a shorter run-down of the investigation’s major takeaways, it is unclear whether USAID’s political goals were accomplished by the operation, and its use of health programs as cover “could undermine USAID's credibility in critical health work around the world.”
  • In the wake of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ insinuation last week that the FARC could jeopardize the future of peace talks with continued attacks on infrastructure, the peace process in Havana has reached one of its most tense moments since talks began. Semana magazine’s latest issue features an analysis of Santos’ remark, ultimately concluding that the rebels do not appear to be willing to scale back attacks. El Espectador, meanwhile, has more on the ongoing debate over the makeup of victims’ delegations that will begin participating in talks later this month. While the guerrillas reject labeling injured Colombian police and soldiers as conflict victims, they are calling for imprisoned members of their own ranks to be recognized as such.
  • The front page of the New York Times yesterday featured an in-depth look at San Pedro Sula in Honduras, the violence-plagued city that has become known as “the murder capital of the world.” Especially interesting is the fact that locals claim the 2009 coup and the global economic crisis took a drastic toll on the city’s most dangerous neighborhood, Chamelecon, leading to layoffs that in turned fueled migration and the emergence of powerful street gangs.   
  • The L.A. Times reports on the plight of Central American migrants in southern Mexico, many of whom entered the country seeking to continue northward to the U.S., but have since been stranded, lacking the resources to continue and unable to return  due to violence back home.
  • Reuters recently published an overview of the "wet-foot, dry-foot" approach to Cuban immigration in the U.S., in which Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil are allowed to stay. As the news agency notes, recent changes in Cuba’s visa policies have led to an increase in the number of migrants from the island who cross over the southwestern U.S. border, fueling allegations of unequal treatment of Central American migrants.
  • The BBC highlights reactions to the passage of a law in Mexico’s Sinaloa state that severely restricts reporting on violence and insecurity. The law, which bans officials from speaking to the press without permission of state prosecutors and prevents journalists from photographing or recording crime scenes, has been widely criticized by press freedom advocates. According to El Universal, these have been joined by the National Human Rights Commission and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which have both issued a statements calling for the law to be repealed. Proceso reports that the head of the Sinaloa legislature has announced that a debate over reforming the law will begin later this month, after lawmakers come back from a current recess on August 21.
  • InSight Crime has an investigation and photo essay on the illegal timber industry in Peru, with a focus on illegal logging along the Brazilian border. Based on a 75-day visit to the region and interviews with loggers, residents and local officials, photographer and author Fellipe Abreu shows how widespread corruption and a lack of inspection are fueling deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon.
  • Foreign Policy has two solid pieces on Argentina’s struggle with holdout “vulture funds.” The first, a column by Shannon K. O'Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations, looks at the issue from an Argentine perspective, arguing that defaulting was in line with the government’s political and economic interests. The second is a look at history of one of the so-called vultures, hedge fund Elliott Associates L.P., which fought a similar battle against Panama in 1996, as Saskia Sassen writes.
  • After a video was published last week showing Knights Templar cartel leader Servando Gomez meeting with the son of a former governor of Mexico’s Michoacan state, federal prosecutors have charged the individual with withholding evidence from a judge. As the New York Times reported, latest video raised questions in the country about Gomez’s continued freedom and connection with the political class in Michoacan.