8 Aug, 13 | by BMJ
Guest post by Melissa Bone, University of Manchester
Uruguay is poised to become the first country in the world to legalise and regulate the sale of cannabis for recreational use. On the 31st July 2013 a draft bill legalising cannabis was passed by members of Uruguay’s lower house of congress, where 50 out of a possible 96 MPs voted in its favour. If approved by the senate as is expected then the government will legally control the production, distribution and sale of cannabis. The bill allows for each Uruguayan household to cultivate up to 6 cannabis plants. Alternatively, residents could join a co-operative which would be licensed to grow up to 99 plants. Private firms will be able to produce cannabis as well, but they will be required to sell it to the government, who will in turn sell it to consumers through pharmacies. Only Uruguayan citizens will be able to purchase cannabis; they can purchase up to 40g per month (minors will be excluded). Driving while under the influence will remain a crime.
Many commentators recognise that Uruguay has taken this bold step due to the devastation that’s wreaked by the so-called “war on drugs”. This phrase was first coined by President Nixon in1971, and it is widely employed on both sides of the drug legalisation debate to describe a global position that prohibits the possession, production, and sale of certain psychoactives, all of which are listed in the UN drug conventions. Advocates of drug reform often use the phrase to expose the aggressive and militant tactics which are used in producer countries especially, in an attempt to restrict the production and trade of illicit substances. For instance, the Latin American region has the highest murder and drug-related violence rates in the world, drug cartels have infiltrated and corroded various positions of power, infamous aerial fumigation operations have destroyed farmer’s livelihoods, and this along with numerous other human rights abuses provides the backdrop for Uruguay’s brave decision.
Predictably, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), a committee tasked with ensuring compliance to the UN drug conventions, doesn’t quite see it this way. The INCB’s president has urged Uruguay to remain compliant with its international obligations citing the “serious consequences for the health and welfare of the population”, and the potential for cannabis abuse “among the youth” if Uruguay’s bill becomes law.
Granted, once Pandora’s Box has been opened it can never be closed again, but the potential repercussions for legalisation are arguably less harmful than its continued prohibition.
Although consumption rates may rise, this is not deemed to be a core concern. In a BBC interview last year President Jose Mujica said that “We are not so worried about the drugs. What really worries us is the drug trafficking”. This line of reasoning supports the repeatedly articulated view that prohibition itself actually causes far more harm than it prevents. As far as I’m aware there has never been a single recorded death from the consumption of the cannabis plant alone, yet the synthetic substitutes currently flooding the market have been attributable to a fair few. When weighing up various social harms, particularly all those cited above, it is perhaps fair to say President Jose Mujica has taken the most pragmatic, rational and evidence-based stance in acknowledging the need for reform.
However, while the reform position is strong in its empirical analyses of social harm, at its most fundamental level I believe drug policy is about much more than the evidence. In my opinion drug policies have always been deeply political, and at root they ultimately centre upon the relationship between the State and the individual. Any individual’s drive for intoxication is consistently pitted against the needs of the State in striving to maintain order. In truth, every philosophy which underpins drug policy debates, whether they are moralist, paternalist, or liberal, all advocate either increases or decreases in individual empowerment or in State control. These viewpoints are elicited through the standard policy positions: legalisation, prohibition, harm reduction and/or decriminalisation. I believe that the Uruguayan government’s legalisation and regulation of cannabis would balance the State/individual binary far more effectively than any prohibitionist regime could do. The State would retain a strong element of control through its regulatory function, and the individual would regain rights over their own autonomy and bodily integrity. Indeed, Uruguay’s cannabis Bill reminds me of an observation made by the renowned sociologist and criminologist Jock Young when he insisted that we must learn to live with psychotropic drug use, because “it is only by treating citizens as responsible human beings that any long lasting control can be achieved”. Some 40 years later Uruguay is the first country to fully act upon this remark. The country is close to unlocking Pandora’s box and I look forward to the evidence-based developments, and even more importantly, to the political consequences.