Uruguay legalized marijuana production and sale in 2013 (Photo: Flickr)
When Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the marijuana market, it took on a bold challenge: vying for the drug business with drug dealers from production to sale.
It was "a measure against drug trafficking to take the market," explained then Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, the leftist leader who promoted the policy.
Six years after the law that drew international attention in December 2013 passed, the South American country presents ambiguous drug results.
On the one hand, official estimates released in January indicate that recreational cannabis regulation has grossed more than $ 22 million from the illegal market.
Much of Paraguay's illegally-pressed pressed grass, which used to be the only choice for Uruguayans, has been replaced by better-quality cannabis flowers or houseplants, which are now perfuming the streets of Montevideo.
At the same time, there are studies showing an increase in marijuana users in Uruguay, where there is still a lucrative black drug market.
In addition, drug-related violence has reached alarming levels in the country of just 3.4 million, which this year has reported different cases of large quantities of cocaine being shipped to Europe.
"It costs a lot to change. It won't be magic," Mujica said in a recent conversation with the BBC World about the results of the law.
But how much has the drug market changed in Uruguay after the law that legalized the cannabis trade?
A market of "local producers"
Uruguay drew international attention in the world with the legalization of the cannabis market (Photo: AFP / BBC)
Uruguayan law has allowed both the private cultivation of cannabis for recreational use and a state-controlled system for the production and sale of cannabis in pharmacies.
There are 38,771 people registered to buy the herb at pharmacies, according to data from the government's Institute of Cannabis Regulation and Control (IRCAA) updated this month.
Companies authorized to grow marijuana rose from two to five in October, something the IRCAA has defined as "a sustained increase for people registered to legally access marijuana for nonmedical use" in the network of 17 authorized pharmacies.
In addition, 7,922 people have registered as home growers (who can have up to six cannabis plants at home) and there are 145 member clubs (which can have up to 45 members and 99 plants each).
However, only one in three consumers in Uruguay obtained marijuana in the regulated market last year, according to an official study presented on Wednesday (18).
An important change has occurred in the origin of the drug.
"Today, the main supplier in the marijuana market is local producers, not traffickers," said sociologist Marcos Baudean, professor at ORT University in Montevideo and a member of Monitor Cannabis, a project that evaluates regulation within the University of Republic.
But he warned that most of these producers do not have a record as required by law, meaning that there is a hidden stream of domestic marijuana in addition to that of illegally imported lower quality, mostly consumed by low-income people.
"Growers generally grow for themselves, can grow a little more to sell, and most of them share their produce with others. That's what popularized buds," Baudean told BBC World.
In downtown Montevideo, in one of the shops that have sprung up in the city to supply all kinds of marijuana growing products, the owner said many consumers are fleeing the official register for distrust of the government.
"The black market has more accessibility, variety" and there are "professionals who prefer not to register," said the woman, who declined to be identified.
Government figures show an increase in the prevalence of Uruguayans who used marijuana at least once last year: from 9.3% in 2014 to 14.6% in 2018.
However, Baudean said the volume of weed consumed is growing at a slower rate than the number of consumers – in a total market of about 40 tons or $ 45.5 million a year – which considered positive.
Cocaine waves and violence
Marijuana law was a response from Uruguay to the country's growing drug trafficking challenges, including violence associated with heavy drug use, such as cocaine paste.
Uruguayan President-elect Luis Lacalle ruled out revoking marijuana law (Photo: Getty Images)
And official data presented on Wednesday (12/18) show a drop in drug offenses. But the problems are far from disappearing.
Last month, the country elected as its future president the opponent Luis Lacalle, who ruled out the repeal of the marijuana law.
Some analysts point out that the current president, Tabaré Vázquez, Mujica's successor, had no determination to enforce the law on its weaknesses, create prevention programs and strengthen public safety.
Although Uruguay stays away from crime rates reported by the region's most violent countries, last year there was a 45.8% increase in homicides from 2017, according to official data.
The country's homicide rate, which was comparable to Europe's two decades ago, rose for the first time to double digits: 11.8 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Three out of five killings in Uruguay in 2018 were cases of "criminal conflict," the government said. Many associate this directly with trafficking.
"Conflict between drug trafficking groups at the domestic level has worsened. But this is not due to marijuana regulation: they continue to dispute illegal drug territories such as cocaine and base paste," Baudean said.
"It was an exaggeration to believe that with the legalization of marijuana, problems with drug trafficking would end," he said.
Monitor Cannabis data indicates that the percentage of Uruguayans who claim to have used cocaine also increased during a period of economic boom: from 0.2% in 2001 to 2.9% in 2017.
This semester, Uruguay was shaken by news of seizures of large cocaine shipments in Europe that had departed from its territory, although the country is not a drug producer.
José Mujica was president of Uruguay when the country legalized marijuana in 2013 (Photo: EFE Agency)
In July, a 600-kilogram cocaine plane was found to have arrived in France from Uruguay, and the following month, a container shipped from Montevideo with 4,500 kilograms of cocaine was reported in Hamburg.
Experts then estimated that traffickers chose Uruguay for their international routes because they have less stringent controls than other countries in the region.
And some even suggested that the country had become a new center of interest for international drug trafficking.
However, Chloé Carpentier, head of the drug research section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (Unodc), said it was "too early" to establish whether Uruguay is part of a new trend.
He noted that, globally, there are changes in trafficking organizations, less integrated than before, and a considerable increase in cocaine production to be distributed worldwide along "changing" routes.
"The (global) market is expanding," Carpentier told BBC World.
Last month, another large shipment of cocaine was seized by authorities at the port of Montevideo: more than 3 tons in a container from Paraguay to Benin.
Mujica said that "cocaine of the highest purity is manufactured everywhere, consumed by Europeans, Americans and those with high purchasing power" and a related problem is the base paste that comes to Uruguay as waste for consumption.
"We're flooded with this crap, which has nothing to do with weed. But the base paste is causing us a mess that we think we have to deal with somehow," he said.
Although he has admitted that marijuana law has yet to achieve its objectives, he said it should be maintained as "an alternative to one light drug to avoid the others."
"Repressive drug policy is a failure and it has to be as the Vietnamese defined it: a battle of the whole people. And if we don't move, we sleep," he said, an expression that colloquially in his country means to have a bad ending. .
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. (tagsToTranslate) Uruguay (t) Marijuana