The Agenda

Uruguay’s Marijuana Experiment

Uruguay is on track to legalize the recreational use of marijuana in a carefully controlled manner, as Ken Parks of the Wall Street Journal reports:

Adults would be allowed to grow up to 480 grams (1.06 pounds) a year of marijuana for personal use, while marijuana clubs of up to 45 people could grow as many as 99 plants. The government would also grant permits for limited commercial production to satisfy the domestic market and license pharmacies to sell pot. People convicted of breaking these laws could face fines of as much as $61,000 and up to 10 years in prison.

By eliminating the risk premium criminals charge for illegal pot, Mr. [Julio] Calzada of the National Drugs Secretariat says legal producers will be competitive in terms of prices, though he recognized that contraband will continue to exist. He pointed to the cigarette market, in which smuggling accounts for just under 10%.

“What we are proposing is to dispute the 100% of the market that is today in the hands of criminal organizations,” he said. “If I end up with 80% or 90% I practically eliminate the black market. That is the medium-term objective.”

Calzada comes across as a sophisticated public servant. He observes that “other countries that have different realities, cultures and notions about the state should find their own path,” and he doesn’t pretend that his reform initiative will eliminate contraband. The structure of the marijuana market the Uruguayans have devised will make large-scale commercialization and marketing a challenge, which is good news from a public health perspective. It will be interesting to see if the Uruguay experiment proves successful, and it is replicated across the region.

A chart that accompanies Parks’ article draws UNDOC surveys conducted between 2002 and 2009 to offer estimates of the percentage of 12 to 65 year-olds who have consumed marijuana in the last year in various New World countries, and it turns out that the United States is, despite marijuana prohibition, an extreme outlier: roughly 14 percent of Americans have consumed marijuana in the last year, roughly double the share in the country with the next highest level of marijuana consumption, Argentina. One assumes that tastes vary, and other narcotics take pride of place elsewhere in the Americas. 

(Drug policy reform, including efforts to reduce or eliminate the legal drinking age, is a libertarian populist effort I can get behind. I draw the line at returning to the gold standard.)