In the global war on drugs, a new strategy is needed to eradicate drug-related violence and eliminate the black market. US foreign policy and international treaties, such as the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, have been highly influential in forming an international zero tolerance approach to drugs. However, South American countries like Uruguay have started to question such strategies and think of new ways to tackle the problems presented by the drug trade.
Uruguay has long been a key player in forming innovative drug policies. In 1974, drug possession for personal use was legalised, and in 2013 it was the first country in the world to pass legislation that would legalise the entire supply chain of marijuana. A politically-driven policy, which two-thirds of the public did not support, was gradually introduced in subsequent years. The legislation offers consumers three methods of accessing marijuana: home growing, forming cannabis clubs, and buying from pharmacies. The policy faces certain challenges, such as meeting the level of demand and enforcement, but the government is taking the long-term view that any difficulties that arise are inevitable in the early stages of an unprecedented policy. Whether Uruguay will become the international model for innovative drug policies remains to be seen as it adapts to its new law and tries to achieve its objectives.
South America has been at the centre of the “war on drugs” since the 1970s. Following international UN treaties and the American model of zero tolerance, South American countries have been grappling with the problem of gangs and drug-related violence. However, the prohibition championed by the US and the UN has proved to be somewhat unsuccessful: there has been a great deal of effort but little progress. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that the number of drug users globally increased by 18 percent from 203 million in 2008, to 243 million in 2012. The illegal drug trade is highly profitable to drug cartels: in 2005, drug production worldwide was valued at USD13 billion while the retail value was USD332 billion. Not only were there key indicators showing that the current approach was not working, but previous examples of substance prohibition, such as alcohol prohibition in the US from 1920 to 1933, had been shown to fail. Governments have had to ask whether their strategies were working and, if not, what else they could do to reduce the impact of the illegal narcotics trade on their countries.
Uruguay, a small coastal country of 3.4 million bordering Brazil and Argentina, has long been a liberal country relative to its much larger neighbours. Since the official separation of the Roman Catholic Church from the state in 1918, women’s right to vote was added to the constitution in 1932, abortion was decriminalised, and same-sex civil unions legalised. Drug possession for personal use was decriminalised by the Decree Law 14294 in 1974 under Uruguay’s civic-military dictatorship. However, the law did not define how “personal use” should be interpreted. Rather, the law allowed individuals “a minimum quantity [of illicit substances], intended solely for personal use”, which was assessed by judges on a case-by-case basis. In contrast, cultivation and distribution of the drug were still illegal under Uruguayan law, punishable by jail sentences of between three and fifteen years. Recognising this contradictory element of the law, and coupled with the fact that judges had discretion to decide what “a minimum quantity” amounted to, the need for change was evident. The law was amended in 1999, reducing the severity of punishment for cultivation and distribution, and “minimum quantity” was changed to “reasonable quantity”.  It was around this time that pressure began to build to go a step further and legalise the drug.
In addition to the inconsistencies of the law, a pressing motivation to change drug legislation was the increase in violence. While Uruguay has one of the lowest homicide rates in South America, in recent years the figure has risen. In 2011, there were just under 6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants annually. However, this climbed to 7.9 in 2012, and despite a slight decrease in 2013, reached 8.4 in 2015. Although, by international standards, Uruguay is considered to be safe, Uruguayans perceive their country to be very dangerous. The government wanted to address this concern by introducing a policy to tackle the increase in violence, which it attributed to drug gangs.
A key challenge within the Uruguayan drug legislation was procurement. Since marijuana users were unable to obtain the drug legally, they were forced to turn to the black market. By interacting with drug dealers, who also sold harder drugs such as cocaine and its unrefined pasta base, the government was concerned that there was an increased risk of marijuana users turning to harder drugs, which could have on impact on personal health and lead to wider social problems.
Based on figures from 2011, Uruguay’s National Drugs Council (NDC) estimated the number of marijuana users at 120,000, with 18,000 of those using it every day. These figures gave an idea of potential demand for the new law. The council estimated that the supply needed would be 25 tonnes annually, while the Uruguayan Association of Cannabis Studies estimated 35 tonnes.
In June 2012, President Jose Mujica introduced a bill in Congress to legalise the production, distribution and consumption of marijuana in order to improve public health and tackle the increasing violence and drug problems facing the country. Marijuana legalisation was formally proposed as part of Mujica’s 15-point plan to address insecurity in the country, known as the Strategy for Life and Coexistence. The bill was criticised and met much resistance, and as a result it was revised and presented to the House of Representatives in November of the same year. The new bill gained the support of NGO workers and human rights advocates, as well as some opposition party members. After many amendments and much debate, the bill was signed into law on 24 December 2013, followed by a public announcement of the new drug regulations on 2 May 2014. Although marijuana had been partly legalised in other countries, Uruguay was the first to fully legalise each element of the supply chain.
The aim of the law was to reduce drug-related crime, improve the health of drug users, and remove paradoxical elements of existing legislation. In order to obtain the drug legally, users had to be over 18 and be either a Uruguayan citizen or a permanent resident in the country. The government was keen to discourage any type of marijuana tourism, and intended the law to affect only those living in the country. Each method required registration with the newly-established Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), the authority responsible for overseeing the industry and enforcing regulations.
One important aspect of the legislation is that users are limited to accessing the drug through one of three methods:
- Home cultivation – registration of individuals through the IRCCA began on 27 August 2014. Home cultivation allows for a maximum of six flowering, female plants per household with a maximum total yield of 480 grams per annum. Any excess marijuana produced is to be handed over to IRCCA.
- Marijuana clubs – registration opened on 30 October 2014. The clubs must contain between 15 and 45 members and they can grow up to 99 plants per year. However, no individual member may take more than 480 grams of the drug per year. Similar to home cultivation, clubs must register with the IRCCA and hand in any excess marijuana produced.
- Purchasing through pharmacies – this step allows individuals who are registered with IRCCA to buy up to 40 grams a month, with a 10g limit per week, using a fingerprint scan to verify their identity.
The government wanted the policy to make obtaining marijuana legally a more attractive option than purchasing it on the black market. For this to be possible, legally obtained marijuana would need to beat black market prices and offer higher quality. Expert estimates put the value of 25 grams of marijuana at about USD100 in the capital, Montevideo, although it could be found more cheaply in regional and border areas. The government proposed offering the drug for sale in pharmacies for 25 grams for USD22.
The public impact
Although the legislation was passed in 2013, the government has rolled the policy out slowly to address any challenges and increase the likelihood of success. However, there have been certain obstacles which have to be overcome to enable the policy to achieve its desired outcomes. These obstacles can be seen as inevitable, because the rollout of this unprecedented drugs policy is still in its infancy. Speaking to the Associated Press in June 2018, Diego Olivera, the head of the NDC, commented that “we never thought about eliminating the black market in a short time; it was always a gradual thing... This doesn’t happen overnight.”
One challenge of the new legislation concerns the small number of pharmacies enrolled in the scheme and how this affects users’ ability to access the drug. There are an estimated 1,200 pharmacies in Uruguay, but only 16 signed up to sell the product in 2017, most of which are located in the capital Montevideo. By 2018, only 12 pharmacies continued to sell marijuana, partly due to the banking difficulties caused by being registered sellers. In fact, two American banks operating in Uruguay refuse to hold accounts with pharmacies that sell the drug. The banks cited the USA PATRIOT Act, which prohibits setting up accounts for clients who are involved in “the manufacture, importation, sale, or distribution of a controlled substance”. The small number of pharmacies may explain the gap between the number of registered users and 2011 predictions. For instance, the number of 18- to 65-year-old Uruguayans estimated to consume marijuana regularly has grown from 120,000 in 2011 to 147,000 in 2018; of these, only 35,000 have registered with IRCCA. In June 2018, there were 8,750 registered home-growers, 90 registered clubs with 2,529 members, and 24,117 individuals registered with pharmacies.
In addition to the low numbers of pharmacies selling marijuana, there have also been issues with matching demand to supply. The legal supply system has not been able to keep up with demand, and has even been producing below its capacity of 10 tonnes per year. Simbiosis and International Cannabis Corporation (ICC), the two firms that have the contracts to supply pharmacies, must pass strict quality control testing before their product may be sold. At one point, Simbiosis’ product did not meet required standards, and ICC was providing the whole supply. 
Furthermore, there has been no decrease in crime rates since the drug became available for purchase. In 2017, the homicide rate was 8.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, the second highest it had been in 30 years. And in the first quarter of 2018, drug-related violence was responsible for 59 percent of homicides, about twice the proportion in 2012. The significant increase in the homicide rate can be attributed partly to organised crime, as gangs fight for dominance, although commentators have also cited “population density and deepening socioeconomic challenges present in marginalised and underprivileged neighborhoods” in Montevideo as a possible explanation. There has been no evidence to show that the increase is related to individuals’ marijuana consumption.
Other challenges that have become apparent are enforcement and tourism. IRCCA is responsible for enforcing the regulations laid out in the legislation. However, it has limited staff numbers to do so, and consequently the police also have to carry out inspections. However, at times there has been a lack of communication between the two, causing registered home-growers in compliance with the law to be wrongly arrested. Moreover, there have also been instances of clubs offering tours of their premises to tourists and giving complimentary samples as part of the experience. IRCCA and the police have cooperated to shut down this type of activity.
Written by Ella JordanHave an idea for a case study? Print
What did and didn't work
Stakeholder Engagement Fair
The policy of legalising marijuana was the initiative of President José Mujica’s government and his party, Frente Amplio. The policy was a political effort that was proposed and developed at a government level without the involvement of other stakeholders, such as pharmacists, marijuana consumers, and other members of the public.
Mujica’s Strategy for Life and Coexistence was presented to the government in June 2012. One of its 15 points was “legalising and controlling marijuana sales, as well as state production of the drug”. Mujica brought a brief policy proposal to lawmakers in August, which was replaced by a bill in November that was eventually adopted as the final policy. The debate over the policy was primarily between members of the government, although the NDC did invite drug policy experts to contribute.
It is important to note the policy’s international element. Although it pertains to Uruguay at a national level, the impact and consequences of being the first country to fully legalise a banned substance are significant. Uruguay did not consult international organisations about its new policy. The International Narcotics Control Board was critical of the legislation, as it contravened the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, but Uruguay reaffirmed its adherence to the convention by stating its commitment to “the protection of the health and welfare of humankind”. Although it was not involved in developing the policy, the Global Commission on Drug Policy recommended support for this type of approach. Their evidence-based reports proposed an “approach to drug policy that puts public health, community safety, human rights, and development at the centre” rather than punitive, zero tolerance policies.
Political Commitment Good
There was strong support among senior members of the ruling party, Frente Amplio, of legislation to legalise recreational marijuana, although initially other party members expressed uncertainty about the bill. From the early 2000s, reducing drug harm was becoming a more pressing issue. After Frente Amplio’s success in the 2009 elections, the Addictions Commission, a government committee established in 1987 to address increasing rates of marijuana use, had many members who were willing to explore the possibility of legalising the drug. The Commission also included members of the Colorado and Independent opposition parties who were interested in legalising the domestic cultivation of marijuana.
When it was introduced, President Mujica’s initial proposal lacked any details on how the policy would work. It was necessary, therefore, to debate and fully draft a bill in the following months. The bill was largely the work of the Frente Amplio leadership, who had to convince other party members and legislators of its value. Once the process of drafting and developing the bill was complete, the leadership managed to convince party members to support it. In 2013, it was presented to the House of Representatives, where 50 out of 96 representatives voted in its favour, after a 13-hour debate. The bill then moved to the Senate, where it was passed by 16 votes to 13 in December later that year.
Public Confidence Fair
The regulation of marijuana cultivation, distribution and sales was a government-led policy and had little public support. Surveys consistently showed that around two-thirds of Uruguayans were against legalising the drug. However, those who consumed marijuana regularly showed much higher rates of approval.
After the initial legislation was introduced as part of the Strategy for Life and Coexistence in 2012, a poll conducted in December found that 64 percent of the public were opposed to the initiative, 10 percent had no opinion, and 24 percent supported it. An information campaign, called Regulación Responsable, was launched to inform the public about the purpose of the law, but it had little effect on public attitudes. Subsequent polls in 2013 and 2014 showed that between 61 percent and 66 percent remained opposed to the policy. Research into the attitudes informing citizens’ opposition to marijuana legalisation found that 68 percent of respondents considered consuming marijuana to be harmful in itself, 71 percent believed that marijuana was a gateway drug to other harder substances, and 69 percent believed that people would still continue to buy the drug illegally after legalisation.
Those who regularly consume marijuana had more favourable attitudes towards the legislation. When surveyed in 2014, 89 percent of frequent users agreed with the law. Asked whether they would join the register, 31.1 percent said they would definitely register, 26.9 percent said they would probably register, 19.6 percent said it was unlikely they would register, and another 19.6 percent saying they would definitely not register. For those who would certainly not register or were unlikely to, the main reasons given were “lack of trust in the registry (28.9 percent), rejection of the existence of a registry (18.8 percent), [and] the fact that they see no benefit in deviating from their current situation (36.6 percent)”.
Clear Objectives Good
The new policy had three main objectives:
- Reducing drug trafficking-related violence by taking marijuana off the black market
- Promoting public health through education and prevention campaigns
- Eliminating the existing legal paradox that allowed for possession but effectively blocked users from accessing marijuana .
The first two were clearly stated in the law itself, while the third was not explicitly mentioned but addressed the problems caused by existing legislation. Since the legislation took effect in 2013, there is no evidence to show any change in these objectives, and the policy remains a priority for the current government.
The Uruguayan policy of legalising the cultivation, production and sale of marijuana was the first of its kind in the world, even though there was strong evidence that prohibition was a failing strategy and new methods were needed to address the issue.
In their 2011 report The War on Drugs, the Global Commission on Drug Policy recommended that the aim of future drug policy should “be the reduction of harm to the health, security and welfare of individuals and society”. The report highlighted the consequences of prohibition, which included the development of black markets, policy displacement, substance displacement, and stigmatisation of users. It recommended that countries be allowed to respond to the challenges of drug use and production within their own particular set of circumstances, rather than by adhering strictly to international treaties. 
There were other examples where marijuana consumption – but not the supply chain – was legalised, as in The Netherlands, or where it was fully legalised only at a regional level and not nationally, as in Washington State and Colorado in the US. President Mujica invited drug policy experts to meetings with the NDC, but it is unclear how the evidence from other countries directly influenced this policy, if at all.
Owing to the structure of Uruguayan government functions, policy implementation faced some challenges in its first 18 months. IRCCA, which was charged with overseeing delivery, had to contend with some challenges when the law was ratified in 2013, especially those related to budget limitations, staff availability, and the enforcement approach.
The Uruguayan budget is set every five years at the start of a new presidential administration, which meant that when the policy came into effect in May 2014, IRCCA had to manage its work without any additional funding being provided, and it was in any case short-staffed. This funding problem was eventually addressed in the 2015 budget, which allocated IRCCA almost USD520,000 for every year until 2020. In addition to the government funding, IRCCA received licensing fees from the suppliers of the pharmacies’ marijuana.
Another challenge to the policy’s feasibility was enforcement. Although the government set out clear regulations in relation to accessing marijuana, there have been some issues with the National Police’s enforcement policy. For instance, some registered home-growers have been arrested for violating home cultivation regulations, even though they had observed them correctly.
In addition, IRCCA’s limited staff numbers mean that it faces difficulties in preventing clubs and home-growers from selling what they produce on the black market or to tourists. To overcome these problems, the Ministry of the Interior introduced guidelines in 2015 to train the police and home-growers on “cannabis-related police encounters” in order to avoid deploying law enforcement resources against compliant marijuana users. It has also been recommended that, in future, the government consider developing a scheme allowing tourists to purchase marijuana legally rather than procure it on the black market.
IRCCA was specifically established to oversee the policy’s implementation. It sits within the Ministry of Public Health and works closely with the NDC. Its primary responsibilities are to monitor the all aspects of the supply chain, including:
- Checking home-growers’ and clubs’ documentation
- Inspecting commercial premises and clubs where marijuana is grown
- Analysing seeds and plants in commercial premises
- Enforcing any punishments for infringement of laws and regulations.
The Board of Directors comprises four members: a president and representatives from three ministries – Public Health, Social Development, and Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries. The Board’s duties are to oversee IRCCA’s operations and also “administer funds, set the cost of licences, hire or dismiss personnel, and create its own internal rules and procedures”. The Board chooses an executive director who is responsible for IRCCA’s day-to-day operations and managing its staff. In addition, IRCCA’s structure includes an honorary committee, which has representatives from other government ministries and state institutions as well as the marijuana clubs, the home-growing associations, and the commercial licensees. The committee has no decision-making power, however, and acts as an advisory body with regard to the policy’s implementation and development.
Although IRCCA was designed to enable efficient interagency cooperation, the reality of the institute’s multiagency structure means that there is often a “duplication of effort”, according to its members. In addition, individual board members can have a large influence on IRCCA’s functions, because a majority is required for any resolution to be passed.
The government has shown some commitment to measuring the impact of the policy, although it has not shared its findings with the researchers who are trying to analyse and evaluate the policy. The government could do more to evaluate the success of the policy and also to make that information freely available.
The law itself requires an annual report on the policy’s impact to be produced and submitted to Congress. At the time of writing, one such report had been submitted (in 2016), but its findings have yet to be made publicly available. Based in the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Monitor Cannabis Uruguay is a research team that monitors the impact of marijuana legalisation. The team would like to collaborate with the Uruguayan government to gain access to official data surrounding the implementation of the policy, but it has met with some difficulties in doing so. In November 2017, IRCCA met with Monitor Cannabis and agreed to implement their metrics to measure the policy’s impact, although there is no further detail on how they will do this or whether their findings will be made public.
The government has rolled out its legalisation policy deliberately slowly in order to address any concerns that might arise along the way. Current challenges include the low number of pharmacies registered to sell the drug, difficulties faced by pharmacies with their banking facilities, and the efficiency of IRCCA in conducting its business and cooperating with the National Police to ensure that the law is enforced correctly
Of the 1,200 pharmacies in Uruguay, only 16 initially registered to sell marijuana. In 2018, the number decreased to 12. Despite the small number of pharmacies selling the drug, the main pharmaceutical associations in Uruguay – the Pharmacy Centre of Uruguay and the Association of Pharmacies of the Interior – have cooperated with IRCCA. Talks between these key actors concern logistics, such as the electronic hardware and software that pharmacies require in order to operate as a marijuana dispenser. In March 2016, an agreement was reached outlining the regulations that pharmacies would have to follow when marijuana became available for purchase the following year. However, not all pharmaceutical organisations are supportive of legalisation, e.g. the Association of Chemistry and Pharmacy has voiced its opposition to the policy, citing a violation of the pharmacists’ code of ethics.
An unforeseen consequence of legalisation was the banks’ refusal to deal with pharmacies that sold marijuana because of international legal constraints. Specifically, Bank of America and CitiBank cited the USA PATRIOT Act (see Public Impact above), under which banks may not hold accounts on behalf of clients who commit an offence that “involves the manufacture, importation, sale, or distribution of a controlled substance (as that term is defined for purposes of the Controlled Substances Act)”.
There is room for improvement in the alignment between IRCCA and the National Police, due to a lack of clear understanding about responsibilities and duties. As IRCCA has just six inspectors, they rely on the support of the police to enforce the law. However, there have been several incidents where police wrongly arrested marijuana users (see Feasibility above), mistakenly finding them in breach of the law. To combat this lack of training and education, the Ministry of the Interior, which controls the National Police, issued guidelines for the use of growers and police about “the procedures in cannabis-related police encounters”.
- Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work, September 2014, Global Commission on Drug Policy
- Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure, Mark Thornton, 17 July 1991, The Cato Institute
- Uruguay takes 'war on drugs' in new direction: The state as dealer, Jonathan Gilbert, September 19, 2012, The Christian Science Monitor.
- Uruguay’s Drug Policy: Major Innovations, Major Challenges, John Walsh and Geoff Ramsey, 2016, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence Latin America Initiative
- Informe Anual sobre Violencia y Criminalidad en Todo El País, 2015, Ministry of the Interior Uruguay
- Intentional homicides (per 100,000 people), UN Office on Drugs and Crime's International Homicide Statistics database, The World Bank
- Uruguay: Marijuana, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs, Geoffrey Ramsey July 2013, InSight Crime
- Quinta Encuesta Nacional en Hogares sobre Consumo de Drogas, May 2012, Junta Nacional de Drogas.
- Uruguay struggling to meet demand for legal marijuana, Leonardo Haberkorn, June 13, 2018, AP News.
- Uruguay’s cannabis law: Pioneering a new paradigm, John Hudak, Geoff Ramsey, and John Walsh, March 2018, Center for Effective Public Management
- Why Have Violent Crime and Murder Spiked in Uruguay? Frank O. Mora, 29 May 2018, theglobalamericans.org.
- Uruguay MPs back marijuana legalisation bill, 01 August 2013, BBC News
- Uruguay becomes first country to legalize marijuana trade, Malena Castaldi and Felipe Llambias, 11 December 2013, Reuters.
- Saying no to weed: Public opinion towards cannabis legalisation in Uruguay, Jose Miguel Cruz, Maria Fernanda Boidi, and Rosario Queirolo, October 27, 2016, Drugs Education, Prevention and Policy.
- Marijuana Legalization in Uruguay and Beyond, Maria Fernanda, José Miguel Cruz, Rosario Queirolo and Emily Bello-Pardo, 2015, Latin American Marijuana Research Initiative.
- Getting Regulation Right: Assessing Uruguay’s Historic Cannabis Initiative, Geoff Ramsey, November 2016, WOLA.
- War on Drugs, The Global Commission on Drug Policy, June 2011.