Why The Timing Is Right For Uruguay To Legalize Pot

Uruguay is poised to legalize the production and sale of marijuana to regulate the drug and scale back its black market. Steve Inskeep talks with John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America about how the country proposes to regulate pot.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Uruguay is about to become the first country in the world to completely legalize marijuana, from growing it to selling it to using it. Lawmakers approved the measure this week, and the country's president has said he will sign the bill. Those tracking the plan include John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization that approves Uruguay's plan.

JOHN WALSH: They've had, for decades now, a very tolerant approach to marijuana use. And they found that they haven't been able to address the black market and crime that surrounds it. And they decided, you know what? We're going to we're going to regulate the production and distribution as well.

INSKEEP: So is this something like the arguments that we've had in the United States, where some states have legalized marijuana?

WALSH: Very, very similar to those arguments.

INSKEEP: So what will they do, exactly? How legal will it be?

WALSH: It will be fully legal for people 18 and older, and for people who abide by the new rules of the game. So it will be licensed production. The government will buy up the production. It will be available for retail through pharmacies. Licensed users will be able to purchase up to 40 grams a month; and there will also be provisions for home-growing, up to six plants in your own home. And membership clubs, 15 to 45 people, up to 99 plants in total.

INSKEEP: Forty grams per month - how many joints is that?

WALSH: It's actually not that many. Think of it as an ounce and a half. So it's not nothing. On the other hand, you're not going to set up a trafficking shop out of your home, either.

INSKEEP: So you might be able to smoke one every day or two and be within the limits.

WALSH: Yeah. Yeah. If you're a regular user, that's a good supply.

INSKEEP: OK. One of the reasons, of course, this is interesting is just that Uruguay is in Latin America - which is a source of a lot of other drugs that end up in the United States. What is the United States thinking about the legalization of marijuana in Uruguay?

WALSH: I don't think they're happy about it. They recognize it's a huge step for country - a national government - to do this. On the other hand, the U.S. federal government is in a very awkward position to come down hard on a country like Uruguay that takes this step, precisely because the U.S. politics and policy have shifted dramatically in the last couple of years with the passage of the Colorado and Washington initiatives, and the Obama administration's correct decision to accommodate them, and ensure that federal enforcement priorities are being met.

The U.S. is now - in the eyes of the U.N. treaties and the international community - similarly running afoul of the obligations on marijuana. So they're in a very weak position to push back.

INSKEEP: Now, we've read that this law will exclude tourists. Tourists going to Uruguay to light up will not be able to do so legally even after the law is passed. Why would that be?

WALSH: Well, they're very mindful of their neighbors' concerns that they could be provoking people to come to Uruguay, either to bring cannabis back or to use more freely than they might in their home country, and they don't want that on either score. So there is a user registry. You have to be in Uruguay in resident, to buy legally. So there are a couple of clear civil liberty issues there, and people are concerned. On the other hand, to be registered as a user in Uruguay is your shield.

INSKEEP: What do you mean there are civil liberties concerns?

WALSH: There are reasonable concerns that I'm going to register my name as a user. What might the state do with it? And the government has gone out of their way - and the authors of the bill - to say, we understand that this would be sensitive information, and it's not going to be used in any way other than keeping track, engaging what demand is and therefore, what supply needs to be.

INSKEEP: Is everybody in Uruguay sure that they're not at the top of some slippery slope, where there will be advocates for legalizing other kinds of drugs along the way?

WALSH: No, not at all. I think that will be a controversial point. But the idea that we can learn from these new experiments with legalizing and regulating marijuana and how that might apply to other, more problematic drugs, is certainly part of the benefit that we hope to see from what Uruguay is doing.

INSKEEP: Oh, now that's interesting. If you think of this as a nationwide experiment, are there people in Uruguay who are thinking, maybe cocaine should be next - we'll see how that works?

WALSH: There would be people thinking that. And I think, you know, the same reasons, the same logic that says we want to take this black market and put it under control of the state and in the hands of lawful entities rather than in criminal hands - if that's the logic, and I think for the most part, it is; and it applies very well to marijuana, which is by far the most widely used illicit drug; you want to consider it. All that said, cocaine is a much more problematic drug in and of itself, and I think it would have to be undertaken with enormous care.

INSKEEP: John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, thanks very much.

WALSH: Great to be here. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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