“Legalize it!” The call for drug policy reform has moved from flower-power communes into the halls of power. Starting next year Uruguayans will be able to buy marijuana through the government. "A society without drugs is a utopia. It's better to regulate the existing market than leave it to organized crime,” says Julio Calzada, one of the architects of the Uruguayan drug revolution.
Hip hop and reggaeton is blaring from loudspeakers down the kind of dimly-lit street avoided by those who can. This is the centre of Montevideo, but many young people attending the street party have descended from the cantegriles, the notorious slums of Uruguay’s capital. Beer bottles, boxed wine, and generous amounts of joints make their way through the crowd. What you smoke you will only find out when it is in your lungs. Sometimes it is cannabis, sometimes it is the destructive and highly addictive cocaine paste that is especially popular among young people in the slums.
Julio Calzada knows this world well. Trained as a sociologist, he spent 24 years working with disadvantaged young people in the country’s slums. “That they come into contact with cocaine paste while looking for soft drugs is particularly problematic,” said Calzada, who is now Secretary-General of Uruguay’s National Drug Council, the agency in charge of implementing the new law, which was passed by the country's Senate on December 10.
Calzada is working across multiple ministries and reports directly to President Jose Mujica. When the president, a charismatic 78-year-old, took office in 2010, he didn’t look for career politicians. The former Marxist guerrilla appointed idealists who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Mujica has already made huge reforms whilst in office, including the legalization of gay marriage and abortion. But he will almost certainly go down in history as the president that legalized cannabis.
Calzada exudes the same down-to-earth attitude as his boss. “Call me Julio,” he says, pouring two glasses of water. It’s seven o’ clock and we are the last people left on the eighth floor of the Torre Ejecutiva (Executive Tower). “To be clear,” he says, “this is Uruguay’s answer. We’re not developing a generally applicable model and we don’t want to tell anyone what to do.”
The interview below was translated as faithfully as possible by the authors from the original Spanish.
Q: Uruguay will be the first country in the world to regulate marijuana production from plant to end-user, will the state be manufacturing marijuana?
A: No. Companies can get a license to cultivate if they meet all the criteria. However, this won’t be a free market. The government will control the entire production and determine the price, quality, and maximum production volume. Each household may also have six plants for their own consumption. Users can also join a cannabis club, where consumers can exchange information amongst themselves. Clubs will be allowed to grow bigger amounts of plants.
Q: And how about smokers who cannot or will not grow their own, will they be able to buy it, too?
A: In the pharmacy. Drug use belongs in health care. The pharmaceutical sector manages all medications where health risks are applicable and is therefore the logical distribution point. People will be able to go there for both medicinal and recreational use of cannabis. Adult residents in Uruguay will be able to buy a monthly maximum of forty grams.
Q: Why does the government need to be involved with this?
A: In Uruguay, there are about 120,000 daily-to-occasional cannabis users. At present, these people are buying from criminals and strengthening local mafia. If the government can take control of that market, criminal organizations will lose their main source of income.
Q: The going rate for a gram here is a U.S. dollar, that’s pretty cheap.
A: That's the going price on the black market, which we need to compete with. Not more expensive, but not cheaper either. Research shows that consumers prefer the legal market to the black market if they have a choice. The quality is better and it's safer, because they no longer have to deal with criminals.
Q: The President of the Supreme Court, Jorge Pino Ruibal, thinks it should be given away for free, so long as people register as users.