Uruguay’s drug control chief, Julio Calzada, is a nervous man – he has just 120 days to deliver regulations controlling the world’s first national marijuana market.
A law now awaiting the signature of president Jose Mujica, after winning congressional approval on Tuesday night, describes what Mr Mujica called an “experiment” in drug legalisation. Now Mr Calzada’s ministry has to deliver the fine print to address unresolved questions raised in the Senate debate.
The government’s stated goal is to drive drug traffickers out of the business and gradually reduce consumption by creating a safe and transparent environment where the state can closely monitor every aspect of marijuana use, from planting the seeds to smoking the finished product.
That means fixing just the right amount of active ingredient, THC, in seeds that can be cloned, identified and controlled. With fewer than 200,000 habitual smokers in the country of 3.3 million, just 25 acres of marijuana plants could supply the entire market.
Mr Mujica, 78, yesterday admitted that his government is not totally prepared for the plan, which poses a direct challenge to the global drug war, which an increasing number of national leaders and experts are calling an open failure. But he said the country has to try.
“Einstein said that there’s nothing more absurd than trying to change the results by always repeating the same formula. That’s why we want to try other methods,” he said in an interview published in La Republica newspaper. “We know we’ve started down a road where there’s no university to tell us what to do. But we have to try, because there’s no blind man worse than the one who doesn’t want to see.”
The president has said he wants the market to officially open by mid-2014.
Polls have showed two-thirds of Uruguayans are opposed to the plan. Many fear the government won’t be able to control the market once it’s legalised. Mr Mujica, who says he never smoked marijuana and considers it a “plague,” said he hopes they will come around to his point of view.
“We want to free future generations from this plague. This should be a national cause. We hope the people will understand and help.”
The law requires growers, sellers and users to be licensed and registered so that the government can enforce limits, such as the 40g of marijuana a month. Any adult will be able to buy their supply at pharmacies, or use the six marijuana plants license-holders can grow at home.
Uruguay was advised by marijuana legalisation groups funded by billionaire currency speculator and philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundation and Drug Policy Alliance. Mr Mujica met Soros and billionaire David Rockefeller, who also favours legalisation, in New York in September to explain what he called his “experiment.”
“You don’t experiment with the Uruguayans. We are not guinea pigs,” Colorado Party senator Pedro Bordaberry retorted.
Uruguay’s plan is a global test case, and will be closely examined as politicians elsewhere decide whether to follow suit.