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.
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