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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.
Photo Credit: Junta Nacional de Drogas