Uruguay Legalized Marijuana And the Crime Rate Has Plummeted

Photo Credit: NIR ELIAS

Canada gets the headlines for its plan to legalize marijuana nationwide in 2018. So does anti-marijuana rhetoric from some officials in the Trump Administration.

Meanwhile, in the South American country of Uruguay, the sale and possession of marijuana has been legal since last July. Citizens there can grow their own marijuana and buy it over the counter without fear of arrest. So far, about the only major complaint about the law is that it doesn’t go far enough.

Crime Rate Drop

The most eye-popping result from Uruguay’s legal marijuana market has been the plunge in crime. Drug-related crime has dropped 20 percent in the country since marijuana became legal in 2017, according to Latin American news service Telesur.

But there are issues. Telesur reports that the government has had to crack down on locals selling to tourists. While marijuana is legal for Uruguay citizens, that right does not extend to those visiting the country.

The law allows for residents to grow six plants at home. They can also buy cannabis from a local pharmacy or create cannabis clubs. Members of the clubs, with a maximum membership of 45 people, can withdraw 40 grams per month of marijuana from the club’s cannabis crop. All of this requires registration with the government.

Also, in Uruguay it is permissible to use marijuana in public. Eduardo Blasina, director of the Cannabis Museum in the nation’s capital, Montevideo, told The Guardian that the law gives Uruguay residents access to “certified, unadulterated marijuana.” He also said the law has ended Uruguay’s participation in South America’s war on drugs.

He said that war “has been absurd, with catastrophic results no matter which indicators you consider, including consumption.” He said legalization in Uruguay could open the door to other countries that are beleaguered by drug trafficking, such as Colombia and Mexico, to follow their lead and make marijuana legal.

The arrest that started it all

There has long been a strong advocacy for legal marijuana in Uruguay, a country that prides itself on openness and liberal laws. But it all reached a head with the 2011 arrest of Alicia Castilla, a 66-year-old author and intellectual who was growing cannabis in her home.

Her arrest ignited huge protests and eventually led to laws that allowed some cultivation of cannabis at home. That, in turn, paved the way for the nationwide legalization that happened in 2017. The case against Castilla was also dismissed last year.

Castilla said during her arrest she was treated like “the female version of Pablo Escobar,” she told the Guardian. Now, she is free to grow plants in her home.

However, some still have concerns that the law didn’t go far enough to legalize marijuana. They dislike the provision that requires cannabis buyers to register with the government, according to The Guardian. They fear it stigmatizes marijuana users by forcing them to register unlike, for example, those who drink alcohol.

Still, Uruguay is far ahead of the rest of the world on marijuana legalization, and certainly it’s leaders have a different attitude toward the issue than many in the U.S. How legalization plays out there — and if that crime rate drop holds — will be something both marijuana advocates and opponents will watch in the coming months.