War on Drugs

The Architect of Uruguay's Marijuana Legalization Speaks Out

"Current drug policy is disastrous. Doing nothing is not an option anymore," says Julio Calzada, one of the men behind Uruguay's drug revolution.


Julio Calzada
Junta Nacional de Drogas

"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.

A: His opinion is obviously important. We have studied the idea and considered it, but it was too complex. Soft drugs would easily find their way to the black market. Free drugs are obviously attractive for criminals to sell abroad. The threshold for cannabis use would be too low. We don't want to encourage anyone to smoke weed, let that be clear.

Q: Why is registration so important?

A: Firstly, in order to check the production volume, which should not exceed the demand. Secondly, to monitor individual consumption; if anyone needs more than one gram per day they have a problem. Anyone using that much will be walking around like an idiot all day and probably have problems at work or in their studies. Gathering this information will allow us to propose proper treatment for these people. But we're not going to force anyone into taking treatment; that would be counterproductive.

Q: Will tourists be able to take advantage of legalization, too?

A: No, they can save themselves the trouble. Only people with a place of residence in Uruguay may register. Selling legally obtained marijuana to non-residents will remain illegal.

Q: In the Netherlands, many users refused to register when the law changed. Why should Uruguayan users do it?

A: For years before the government started requiring registration the Dutch were able to go unregistered to a coffee shop and get what they wanted. Perhaps not everyone here will want to register from day one, but that's not a disaster. We're in this for the long haul.

Q: How can you guarantee that information about registered users won't be abused, for example within recruitment to the public sector?

A: We absolutely want to avoid that situation. There are mechanisms in place to protect registrants' data. Most government departments, police forces, and insurance agents will not get access to this database. On the other hand, people use their credit card to buy a bottle of whiskey or drugs. That transaction is recorded and no one seems to care.

Q: How much money will legalization generate for the Uruguayan treasury?

A: We estimate it will generate U.S. $8-12 million in tax revenue. For a country of 3.3 million inhabitants, that is a significant amount. We'll invest it primarily in awareness programmes. At the beginning of December a large-scale campaign on the risks of cannabis use will begin. The money will also go towards the treatment of problematic users.

Q: Isn't there an inherent contradiction in legalizing cannabis while preaching about its dangers?

A: On the contrary! This is perfectly in line with the policy we've had for years with alcohol and tobacco. In parallel with cannabis we also regulate the distribution and consumption of alcohol. The rules for the promotion or advertising of alcohol will be much stricter than before. But citizens have the freedom to use those products. It is the duty of the government to inform them about the dangers and convince them to deal with their freedom responsibly.

Q: Does it work?

A: Yes, very well indeed. In 2005 we regulated the tobacco industry in a similar way. Since then, use among young people has fallen from 32 to 12 per cent! This proves that regulation can be an extremely powerful political tool and can effectively influence public health.

Q: Raymond Yans, president of the UN's International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) is concerned that legalization will have serious consequence for public health, particularly among young people.

A: We are convinced that the current criminalization of soft drugs is much more harmful to health than drug use itself. In 2012, 82 people were killed in incidents related to illicit drug trafficking in Uruguay. Compare that to zero killed by the consumption of marijuana. Uruguay has, by Latin American standards, low crime rates. But the number of violent offenses has increased in 2011 by 32 per cent. That is alarming. In this new environment we're seeing contract killings taking place, which up until now were unheard of in Uruguay. We want to take the wind out of organized crime's sails, and the drug trade is their most lucrative business.

Q: Consumption of hard drugs has been tolerated for years in Uruguay, why not take that from the cartels at the same time?

A: We're focusing on marijuana because it represents the largest group of drug users and the greatest source of income for criminals. Fourteen per cent of Uruguayans aged between 16 and 64 have used marijuana, versus one per cent using cocaine. Legalization also separates cannabis distribution from more destructive hard drugs. If users can buy a joint on the mainstream market they are less likely to come into contact with hard drugs, which at the moment are coming from the same dealers. The Netherlands has opened coffee shops to separate cannabis from the heroin market. That policy has been highly successful. The Netherlands has less hard drugs, drug-related deaths and HIV infections than most other European countries.

Q: Meanwhile, "nederwiet" [Dutch super-strength weed] has practically become a hard drug.

A: That's right. The THC content of Dutch cannabis is often 20 to 25 per cent. That is the result of a very cynical drugs policy. Users can buy weed from a coffee shop, but when the shop's getting hold of its stash, the government looks the other way. Producers remain criminalized and strive for higher THC levels to attain greater profit margins.

We will strictly enforce limits on THC levels of five to 12 per cent. A huge benefit of government regulation is that we can control the quality of the product. Currently, Uruguayan users are smoking prensado paraguayo (literally: Paraguayan pressing), a compressed blend of leaves, glue, oil, faeces, chemicals, and so on. The mix is much more harmful to health than pure cannabis.

Q: Sixty-three per cent of the population are opposed to the reform, but President Mujica's pushing it forward anyway. Is that wise?

A: The president wants to involve the whole country in the debate. As a result, the law has been delayed somewhat. But we will reform. In time, people will see that we are making the right choice with this policy. In the same survey we asked respondents where they'd prefer users get their cannabis from: the pharmacy or the mafia? Seventy-eight percent chose the first option.

We've come to a point where doing nothing is not an option any more. A society without drugs is a utopia. Drug use is as old as mankind and societies have always found ways to regulate, often through religion. In this western, largely secular, society, we urgently need to find a new way to deal with drug use, because current methods are proving disastrous.

What are the results of fifty years of the war on drugs? Worldwide, millions of people are in jail for possession of minimal quantities of soft drugs. Yet the number of users worldwide has more than doubled. On the other hand, decriminalization actually reduces drug use. We've known this since America banned alcohol with Prohibition in the '20s. If people want to use a substance, they'll do everything they can to get their hands on it. If that's difficult, they'll turn to shady characters to get what they're after, which only serves the mafia to further professionalize and gain influence.

With the infamous "Plan Colombia," the U.S. thought it could pulverize drugs with an iron fist. But the only thing it achieved was to spread organized crime across the entire continent. That youths in our slums are now smoking cocaine paste is collateral damage of Plan Colombia. It's the balloon theory, wherever you squeeze a balloon the air just goes somewhere else. After half a century of disastrous results we're choosing to embark on a different path.

And we're not alone. Colombia and Guatemala are embarking on similar experiments. We also investigated the experiences of the Netherlands, Portugal, and Australia, and the regulation of opium for medical use in India and Turkey. Even in the U.S., the war on drugs' greatest advocate, 20 states are experimenting with forms of legalization.

Q: Uruguay takes it a step further than that though, and not everybody's happy about it. Raymond Yans is talking about international treaty violation.

A: We feel that we're acting within the spirit of the treaties. They provide for different methods, so long as they contribute a solution to the drug problem and aim to improve public health.

Q: Yans is insisting that the Uruguayan government reject the law before it reopens any dialogue with the INCB.

A: We are in constant contact with the INCB and will continue to be so. We know their visions, they know ours. Uruguay is a sovereign country, with an elected parliament and a strong democratic tradition, so we're going to continue with this policy in accordance with our sovereign and democratic rights.

Q: Mexico and Colombia aren't against your experiment, but they'd have preferred a multilateral solution.

A: Our situation is completely different to theirs. Uruguay does not have to deal with powerful drug mafias controlling large parts of the country. We consulted with governments around the world and found a lot of appreciation for our approach, even in the countries you mentioned. We have chosen the approach we believe to be the right one for Uruguay. In addition, we are also continuing to work jointly with other countries around the world.

Q: How do your colleagues in Europe feel about the reform?

A: Initially there was concern. But we've assured governments in Europe that we won't be creating an open market. Our production will never exceed local demand.

Q: Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, former heads-of-state from Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Switzerland, Portugal, Poland, Greece… the list of international hotshots advocating legalization in recent years has grown significantly. Yet President Mujica is the first to do more than talk big. Do you think fears of backlash in the polls are preventing politicians in other countries from pushing for legalization?

A: That certainly makes sense. There is a lot of fear among the people and populist politicians respond to this fear. Many others are afraid of getting punished on election day, and there are some who will always think regulation is not the right way to go. Mujica argued, "Someone has to be first." It was either now or within the next five years, but the process was inevitable. We've chosen to do it now to save ourselves five years of suffering.