WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
30 Apr 2015 | Publication

Uruguay’s Drug Policy: Major Innovations, Major Challenges

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By John Walsh and Geoff Ramsey

As the international community debates how to progress on drug policy ahead of the 2016 United Nations Special Session of the General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (also known as UNGASS 2016), policymakers are sure to look closely at Uruguay, the first country to legalize and regulate every level of the market for cannabis.  In recognition of this, WOLA Senior Associate for Drug Policy and the Andes John Walsh and Digital Communications Officer Geoff Ramsey prepared a policy brief for the Brookings Institution’s “Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives and UNGASS 2016” paper series.

Read: Uruguay’s Drug Policy: Major Innovations, Major Challenges

In the brief, Walsh and Ramsey trace the history of Uruguay’s drug policy throughout the 20th century, highlighting the fact that the roots of the historic 2013 cannabis regulation law lie in the country’s relatively liberal record on drugs. The authors also identify the political factors that led to the law’s passage, and the main challenges to its implementation today. At the end of the publication are a series of five recommendations meant to ensure that the world’s first experiment with a fully-regulated cannabis market goes as smoothly as possible.

Key Findings

  • Uruguay, the first country to legalize and regulate every level of the market for cannabis, will be an important example globally for political leaders contemplating whether and how to liberalize drug policies.
  • Even before its return to democracy in 1985, Uruguay had traditionally adopted relatively liberal drug policies.
  • A combination of political leadership by President José “Pepe” Mujica and public unease over rising criminality led Uruguay to pursue drug reform.
  • Compared to similar cannabis laws in Washington and Colorado, the Uruguayan measure is more state-centered, with less emphasis on commercialization and greater restrictions on use.
  • Uruguayan public opinion has remained opposed to—or at least skeptical of— the law.
  • Uruguay will have to contend with international criticism and domestic political forces as it moves to implement enabling legislation in 2015.


Policy Recommendations
The authors recommend that the government of Uruguay:

  • Maintain flexibility regarding the cannabis law’s key variables, such as market price and potency varieties available to consumers;
  • Adjust the law based on thorough monitoring and evaluation, taking into account academic and civil society analysts;
  • Articulate an enforcement and inspection strategy for the relevant officials;
  • Implement a drug use prevention strategy aimed at youth that does not dissuade users and home-growers from registering with the government; and
  • Better educate the public on the reasoning behind the law and what it aims to accomplish.