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Why Uruguay’s President Is Wrong About Cannabis

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Late last week the President of Uruguay, Luis Lacaille Pou, reportedly stated that it was a mistake for Uruguay to have passed an adult-use legalization measure back in 2013, and subsequently, launched legal adult-use sales four years later. Both moves by Uruguay were the first of their kind by any country on earth since the start of global cannabis prohibition. It’s worth noting that Uruguay’s current President was elected in 2020, well after the country legalized cannabis for adult use.

As expected, cannabis opponents are pointing to the President of Uruguay’s statements as loudly and as often as possible. They are touting it as some type of ‘proof’ that adult-use cannabis legalization does not work, and that the first country to ever legalize cannabis for adult use has buyer’s remorse. According to the President, the government should not be part of the process of growing or selling “drugs” because he considers legal cannabis to be “unprofitable.”

Why Did Uruguay Legalize Cannabis?

When Uruguay passed its national cannabis legalization measure, the public policy shift had three main objectives, two of which were specified in the law itself:

  • Reducing cartel-related violence by moving cannabis into a regulated market
  • Promoting public health through education and prevention
  • Eliminating the catch-22 of allowing possession but effectively blocking consumers from accessing cannabis

Contrary to the spin-doctoring that Uruguay’s President seems to be currently engaging in, the goal of Uruguay’s historic cannabis policy shift was never to maximize profits. Prohibition is a failed public policy, and a regulated model will always be a better approach to cannabis policy.

Drug cartels have caused an enormous amount of misery and suffering in Uruguay and throughout the region. Cannabis is obviously only one of the many facets of a drug cartel’s operations, however, giving consumers a regulated option to legally acquire cannabis hurts cartels’ bottom line to some extent, and from that perspective, legalization is clearly working.

Improve The Legalization Model

Legalizing cannabis purely for monetary gain is not a solid reason for such a public policy change. People should support cannabis legalization because it is the right thing to do being that cannabis prohibition literally ruins lives. No one should ever be subjected to the criminal justice system due to possessing, cultivating, and/or buying a personal amount of cannabis.

With that being said, if Uruguay’s President is truly concerned about the profitability of the nation’s emerging cannabis industry, then he should seek to improve it rather than destroy it. The first thing that the President should seek to do is open up the nation’s cannabis system to tourists. Unlike Canada, Uruguay only allows sales through pharmacies and private clubs, and those sales are only open to residents. That is obviously going to limit the size of Uruguay’s potential customer base and hinder industry profits.

One thing that the President seemed to disregard in his statements is the cost savings to Uruguay by the country no longer enforcing failed public policy. Enforcing cannabis prohibition is expensive. It costs money to pay law enforcement to identify and investigate unregulated cannabis activity. It costs money to then prosecute cases through Uruguay’s court system. Incarcerating people also costs money. When Uruguay stopped enforcing prohibition, it yielded obvious cost savings for the government. Legalization is working in Uruguay, whether the country’s President wants to admit it or not.