Monday, February 23, 2015

February 23: A Big Day for Uruguay’s Marijuana Experiment

Note: I originally wrote this post for an e-mail list of policy experts interested in tracking the politics of drug policy reform in Uruguay. Contact me at gramsey@wola.org if you are interested in receiving future updates.

Uruguay’s experiment with legal domestic cannabis cultivation is about to enter a new phase, marking a key opportunity for the country to demonstrate what an effective enforcement model for the law will look like in the future.

Until now, Uruguayan cannabis-growers have been allowed to register their existing plants with authorities, but moving forward they will have to obtain prior permission to legally possess the six flowering female plants permitted under the law. This is because February 23 marked six months since the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) launched its registry of cannabis home-growers, and federal regulations issued in May 2014 require this grace period to last just 180 days.

Uruguayan officials have consistently said that undercutting the criminal networks that profit from selling cannabis is a primary goal of regulating the black market. However, the fact that there has been no major surge in applications to grow marijuana at home indicates that commercial sales and cannabis clubs (the other two methods of access under the law) will have to bear the brunt of this responsibility.

According to the figures last cited publicly by National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada, just 1,300 people have signed up so far to grow cannabis plants in their homes. Sources close to the IRCCA have said that this figure is now closer to 1,600, but still the number likely falls short of the total number who currently tend marijuana plants already. There is no official figure for this, but home-growing is not uncommon among Uruguayan cannabis users and some estimates have placed the number of growers as high as 10,000-30,000.

The end of the grace period is also important as it represents an opportunity for Uruguay to clearly demonstrate how it will enforce violations of its cannabis law. It remains to be seen how strictly the IRCCA—which is still a nascent institution with a small staff and a tight budget—will ensure that new applicants to the home growers’ registry do not already possess cannabis plants. Doing so may even hinder efforts to get users to “go legal,” as it is unlikely that many potential applicants are willing to destroy their current plants in order to obtain growing licenses.

There have been other indications that a better-articulated enforcement strategy is needed in Uruguay. In the fourteen months since the cannabis regulation initiative was signed into law by President Jose Mujica, several raids on large-scale cannabis plots have made headlines, as have arrests of some smaller-scale sellers or offending growers. In many cases, however, the latter are the result of a lingering disconnect between the letter of the law and how it is actually enforced by police. On November 25, for instance, an IRCCA-registered grower in the northern city of Bella Union was arrested and falsely accused of violating his license by having 11 cannabis plants in his home. However, a judge subsequently released him and returned his plants when it became clear that the extra five were males or seedlings, which do not have a psychoactive effect and do not count as contraband.

The event prompted an investigation in newsmagazine Brecha, which described an environment in which the small towns of the Uruguayan interior are still battling “for what used to be a crime to stop being one in the minds of those with the power to use force.” Julio Rey, President of the Uruguayan Federation of Cannabis Growers, claims his fellow growers have seen similar treatment not only in the rural interior, but in the capital city of Montevideo as well. Rey told Brecha that he himself was recently threatened with arrest for consuming cannabis openly by a police officer in Montevideo, despite the fact that cannabis use is permitted in the same places as tobacco use under the law, and the use of illicit substances has been decriminalized in Uruguay since 1974.

Instances like these show that when President-elect Tabaré Vázquez takes office on March 1, the new phase of home-growing registration presents an excellent opportunity for his administration to better educate Uruguay’s police force on the law. Though Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi clarified to La Diaria this week that implementing the law does not fall under his duties, the Ministry of Interior is reportedly already working with the National Drug Council to develop a protocol on the law’s enforcement. Upon Vázquez’s inauguration, he might reasonably be expected to ensure that National Police offices, as well as the general public, are properly briefed on these new operating procedures.

In Other News:

  • The fact that the IRCCA has narrowed the field in its bidding process for the 3-5 licenses to grow cannabis for commercial sales has made international news. As Bloomberg reported on February 11, there are currently 11 companies vying for the licenses, which include companies from the United States, Germany, and Canada. Last month, leading Uruguayan daily El País reported that the IRCCA was on the verge of announcing five finalists, and that three of them would be Uruguayan while the other two would be foreign-owned. 
  • Someone in the incoming Vázquez administration has confirmed to the press what many Uruguay watchers have suspected for months now: sources close to the president-elect told El País earlier this month that Vázquez has said there “is no hurry” for the next stage of implementation (commercial sales) to be set up. The new president reportedly wants it to be created “seamlessly,” and intends to take time before rolling out pharmacy sales. 
  • Last week, El País published an excellent update on the status of Uruguay’s cannabis clubs, which under the law can have between 15 and 45 members and grow up to 99 plants. According to officials cited in the paper, there are 20 clubs that have begun the process of registering with the government by presenting the IRCCA with business and security blueprints for their operations. As I have previously noted, Uruguay’s cannabis clubs seem to be far more heavily regulated than similar experiments in places like Spain’s Catalonia and Basque Country. But as the El País article notes, the Uruguayan clubs that have developed so far require steep initial investments. According to the paper, some clubs are already charging an initial membership fee of 400 U.S. dollars to get their groups off the ground, and then roughly 75 dollars every month after that. 
  • For drug policy reform advocates, there is more good news out of Uruguay this month: outgoing Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, who is currently running unopposed to be the next Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has signaled that he may take his country’s reform-minded approach to drug policy to the OAS. El Observador reports that in a meeting with civil society organizations in a visit to Washington D.C. last week, Almagro named marijuana legalization among a list of other human rights issues on which his country has made progress, adding: “I think these are issues that the OAS should take on in these times.” 
  • Recent weeks saw the first press coverage of an issue that Uruguayan officials have been weighing for months: varying the set price of cannabis that will eventually be sold in pharmacies for recreational and medicinal use. When the law was first passed, officials claimed it would be sold for the equivalent of roughly $1 dollar per gram, a figure intended to price out the cheap, imported Paraguayan product that is widely consumed in the country. But after consultation with local and international experts, El Observador reported on February 6 that National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada stated that officials have decided to offer various strains of the plant at various prices according to their potency, to discourage users from automatically turning to high-potency strains. A potential drawback to this plan was subsequently noted by the GlobalPost's Will Carless, who reported that this meant medicinal-grade marijuana will cost more to patients than recreational cannabis. However, Presidential Undersecretary Diego Cánepa told Carless that this is not necessarily the case, and will have to be settled at a later stage by the Ministry of Health.