Monday, February 9, 2015

The Latest on Uruguay's Cannabis Law: Continuity on the Horizon

Milton Romani to Head Uruguay’s National Drug Council


With the return of Milton Romani as Uruguay’s drug czar, and with the medicinal use and commercial sale elements of the country’s cannabis law taking shape, incoming President Tabaré Vázquez has given his clearest signal yet that he will support its rollout when he takes office on March 1.

Even though Vázquez shifted his tone following his electoral victory, and insisted that he would implement the law to the letter, as recently as December 4 he publicly expressed doubts about current President Jose Mujica’s claim that the measure will have an impact on insecurity and take a bite out of criminal profits. These doubts were often repeated in local and international press, and led to more than a bit of speculation over whether the law would go “up in smoke” under the new president.

Yet despite all this hand-wringing, this week brought excellent news for drug policy reform advocates watching Uruguay. On February 2, newspaper La Diariareported that Milton Romani, former drug czar and Uruguay’s ex-ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), would be resuming his post as national drug secretary under Vázquez. On February 5, Romani confirmed the news in an interview with El Observador, in which he himself described his nomination as a signal of “continuity.”

Romani will bring a unique combination of policy expertise and political influence to the job. He not only occupied the same post from 2005 to 2011, he also was one of the first voices in Uruguay to publicly call for regulating the black market for marijuana. Indeed, Romani advocated for the creation of state mechanisms to “regulate and control the markets of production, sale and consumption” of illicit substances in a report published by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)in April 2012, two months before Mujica made headlines for a similar proposal.

Additionally, Romani has firsthand experience with diplomatic engagement at the OAS and at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna. This will no doubt come in hand next year at the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy, where Uruguay will be well-positioned to advocate for reforms to international drug treaties on the world stage.

Romani’s nomination is not the only major drug policy-related news to come out of Uruguay in recent weeks. On January 28, Presidential Undersecretary Diego Cánepa told Radio Espectador that the regulatory agency responsible for monitoring the new marijuana law, the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), is on the verge of announcing the five companies that will be granted licenses to grow cannabis for retail sale in pharmacies. At time of writing, these companies have not yet been publicly identified, but El País reports that three of them will be Uruguayan, while two will be foreign-owned.

This is a significant step forward, as pharmacy-based sale is the only commercial method of accessing marijuana under the law (the others being home-growing and cannabis clubs). The bidding process for commercial growing began in August, and initial reports that the first harvest could be completed by Vázquez’s inauguration proved to be off base. As it stands, it looks doubtful that sales will begin before mid-2015. As current National Drug Secretary Julio Calzada told Espectador this week: “We can suppose that within three or four months this [process] could be working.”

In Other News:



  • On top of the advancement made on production for commercial sales, the Mujica administration has made progress on the issue of medicinal and scientific cannabis use. On February 4, the executive branch released a set of regulations (PDF) which authorize the scientific community to obtain the substance for study, and lays out the framework for medical marijuana, allowing physicians to prescribe the drug to patients in monthly increments. The primary goal of this, as Calzada explained in a separate interview, is toprevent any abuse of medicinal cannabis by recreational users, or as he phrased it, “veiled non-medical use,” a concern that Mujica himself raised in May 2014, when he described the Colorado state marijuana law’s medical component as “a fiction.”
  • February 23 is a day for drug policy analysts watching Uruguay to keep on their calendars. As the IRCCA recently announced in a reminder posted on its website, the date will mark 180 days since the IRCCA launched its home-growing registry. According to the regulations released last May, this will also mean the expiration of the current “amnesty period,” under which individuals interested in growing up to six plants for personal use are allowed to register plants they already have. Moving forward, applicants must obtain prior permission from the IRCCA. According to the latest publicly released figure, made by a National Drug Council official to Spanish news agency EFE on January 30, some 1,300 have signed up so far. The total number of individuals who are currently growing plants illicitly is unknown, but some estimates have placed it as high as 10,000-30,000.
  • Recent days have seen back-to-back notable instances of cannabis-related coverage in local press. On February 1, leading daily El País published an article with a positive slant on the law, reporting on the fact that many analysts in the country are beginning to see the legalization of commercial cannabis sales as a springboard for other, more lucrative industries, namely medical cannabis and hemp production. This is an unusual shift for El País, a conservative paper that is historically affiliated with the opposition National Party and has published numerous editorials against the new law. Then, on February 2 El Observador (which has the second-largest circulation after El País) published a harshly critical editorial attacking the government’s security narrative for the law. According to the paper: “To believe that this measure will impede drug trafficking organizations inside and outside of this country, which have massive financial strength and operational efficiency that despite being illegal surpass the unguided organizational experience of the Uruguayan state, is to live in the clouds.”
  • Police in Uruguay have continued raids on unlicensed cannabis cultivation, with two notable operations making headlines this month: the first was theseizure of some 200 plants in the beach town of Punta del Diablo, and the second was the arrest of an individual for growing 17 plants in the city of Pando.