Uruguay's Buttoned-Down Version of Marijuana Legalization



Last week Uruguay, the first country to legalize marijuana, unveiled its rules for getting high, which are notably stricter in several respects than the regulations imposed by Colorado or Washington. Every consumer has to register with the government and pick one of three options for obtaining marijuana: growing it at home (up to six plants per household), joining a club consisting of 15 to 45 people growing no more than 99 plants for their own use, or buying up to 10 grams (about a third of an ounce) per week from a specially licensed pharmacy. No matter which option you pick, you may possess no more than 480 grams (about a pound) over the course of a year, so if you grow at home or in a club you'd better hope your plants are not too productive.

By comparison, Colorado and Washington both allow purchases of up to an ounce at a time, with no registration and no weekly or yearly limit. Colorado allows home cultivation (up to six plants per person) in addition to retail sales, and you can keep whatever those plants produce in the location where you grow them (or share it, up to an ounce at a time, with other adults, "without remuneration"). One way in which both states are stricter than Uruguay: Their legal age for purchase and possession is 21, while Uruguay's is 18.

Uruguay is banning all marijuana advertising, an option that is not available in the United States due to constitutional protections for freedom of speech. Even the restrictions imposed by Colorado and Washington may be vulnerable to challenge under the free speech guarantees of those states' constitutions, if not under the First Amendment. Uruguay's constitution does declare that "the expression of opinion on any subject by word of mouth, private writing, publication in the press, or by any other method of dissemination is entirely free, without prior censorship." That freedom, I gather, does not include opinions like, "Our Kurple Fantasy is the best!" 

Over all, Uruguay's version of marijuana legalization, which is supposed to be up and running by the end of the year, is decidedly more buttoned down than Colorado's or Washington's, and that is the way President Jose Mujica likes it. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, the former Marxist revolutionary criticized Colorado's approach as excessively loose, saying "it's a complete fiction what they do" to control consumption. "No addiction is good," Mujica said. "We aren't going to promote smokefests, bohemianism, all this stuff they try to pass off as innocuous when it isn't. They'll label us elderly reactionaries. But this isn't a policy that seeks to expand marijuana consumption. What it aims to do is keep it all within reason, and not allow it to become an illness."