Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Let’s legalize pot, but not like Uruguay!

P A year after Uruguay became the world’s first country to pass a law by which the government will not only allow but also produce and sell marijuana for recreational use, there are growing doubts on whether President-elect Tabare Vazquez will implement the legislation in full.

Vasquez, who takes office in March, has publicly expressed his skepticism about parts of the drug legalization law, such as the plan to allow pharmacies across the country to sell government-distributed pot.

A former president who belongs to the same left-of-center party as outgoing president Jose Mujica, the president-elect is a practicing physician who during his previous term from 2005 to 2010 led a crusade against cigarette smoking.

How will a president who has a long history of fighting cigarette smoking become a champion of marijuana consumption, many are asking themselves here. How will he implement the law without going against his own principles?

“There’s no question that Vasquez doesn’t like the marijuana law,” former President Julio Maria Sanguinetti told me. “He won’t do away with it because he can’t go against his party’s majority bloc in Congress, but he will most likely try to water it down in the implementation process.”

While the marijuana production and distribution program has been signed into law by Mujica, you cannot yet buy government-produced marijuana on the streets. The process of registration of government-licensed pot suppliers and vendors is still under way, and is scheduled to finish in the first half of this year, officials say.

Under the law, Uruguayans will be able to get legal marijuana by growing it themselves at home if they register themselves as individual growers. They will also be able to buy it from “marijuana clubs” that will have up to 45 members each, and from pharmacies. So far, more than 1,200 individuals and 500 marijuana clubs have applied for pot-growing licenses, government officials say.

But most pharmacists are opposing the law. Some fear that they will be targets of attacks, robberies or extortion by black market pot dealers, while others just don’t like the idea of selling a drug that can be harmful.

“A pharmacy should be a health center, not a place that sells things that are bad for your health,” says Virginia Olmos, head of Association of Chemists and Pharmacists of Uruguay. President-elect Vasquez has said that “if necessary,” he may submit a bill to change the law and exclude pharmacies from the list of places that will be authorized to sell pot.

But perhaps the biggest criticism against the new marijuana law is that — even before the first government-produced cannabis cigarette has reached the streets — there are signs of a big increase in marijuana consumption among youths. The publicity surrounding the law has led growing numbers of Uruguayan youths to get interested in marijuana and to buy it on the black market.

For the first time in Uruguay’s history, marijuana consumption among students has surpassed tobacco consumption, a new poll by the National Drug Agency and the Uruguayan Drug Observatory shows.

The poll among more than 11,000 students aged 13 to 17, released in December, shows that 17 percent of the students consumed marijuana over the previous 12 months, while only 15.5 percent consumed tobacco over the same period. Marijuana consumption among teenagers has doubled since 2003, the poll shows.

My opinion: I have supported marijuana legalization for some time now, and I still do. But Uruguay has done several things wrong, starting with Mujica’s often careless comments in support of government pot production, which came across as a presidential endorsement of pot that may have encouraged more youths to try the drug.

In addition, while it’s a good idea to regulate the marijuana business to take it away from organized crime cartels, I wonder whether it’s smart to have the government — rather than private companies — produce, sell and distribute the drug. That will not only create a huge bureaucracy, but may generate government corruption in one of Latin America’s least corrupt countries.

There are indications that President-elect Vasquez — while abiding by the marijuana legalization law in general — may reduce its scope, and adopt less frivolous rhetoric on this issue, warning youths about the dangers of drug consumption. That will be good for Uruguay, and for other countries that are watching its bold experiment with drug legalization very closely.