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New Uruguay President Postpones a Key Step in Jose Mujica's Marijuana Legalization Law

Days after taking office, President Tabaré Vázquez postponed the sale of cannabis in pharmacies. Vázquez, who served once as president before, has said drug legalization is a "story that ends badly."

by Christian Müller
Mar 5 2015, 3:05pm

Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Uruguay's new president has pledged to continue the marijuana legalization policies left by his predecessor, but has also decided to postpone the implementation of public sales of cannabis, a key part of outgoing president Jose "Pepe" Mujica's weed legalization plan.

With just a few days in office, Vázquez is moving more cautiously on the revolutionary law aimed at completely regulating the production and sale of marijuana in the small South American nation.

President Tabaré Vázquez, who took office on Sunday, has publicly stated that he does not support the consumption of weed, and suggested last year that a national growers database started by Mujica could eventually help the government "rehabilitate" weed smokers.

During his presidency, Mujica caught the world's attention by completely legalizing the production and sale of marijuana in 2013, placing the entire chain of production under state control. The law allowed for three different ways to acquire marijuana legally: grow it yourself, join a cannabis club, or purchase it at a pharmacy.

In 2012, when the idea of legalizing cannabis was first discussed, Vázquez said people "shouldn't consume marijuana," because it produces negative "psychological, psychiatric, and neurological effects."

"Marijuana causes as much damage, or even more, than tobacco," Vázquez said at the time. "It's best to just not smoke anything."

'If we make a mistake by rushing, we fail.'

Fifteen cannabis clubs and about 2,000 grow operations are already in motion. But on Wednesday, the Vázquez administration announced it would postpone the sale of marijuana at pharmacies, saying the country wasn't ready to implement it yet.

In an interview with VICE News, Milton Romani, the new government's chief drug regulator, said there was "no rush" to start pharmacy sales.

"I want this project to be successful," Romani said on Wednesday, three days after assuming his post. "If we make a mistake by rushing, we fail."

Romani told VICE News that the process has been "a bit delayed because the companies do not deliver documents on time, and in the manner that has been requested." And, he said, because the necessary software is still being developed in order to sell cannabis in pharmacies.

"I am here to assure continuity in the drug policy," Romani said.

Tabaré Vázquez and Uruguayan vice president Raul Sendic wave to supporters on inauguration day. (Photo by Matilde Campodonico/AP)

A national database of marijuana growers began in 2014. It regulates the use of industrial hemp. With it, the sign-up phase for registering with cannabis clubs went into effect, and the use of medicinal cannabis was authorized.

But Mujica reached the end of his term without achieving the public sale of cannabis in Uruguay's pharmacies.

Romani told VICE News that the main challenge is "to match the level of production and the number of companies involved in this, with the clients that will be purchasing it," since the country is "developing a closed market, a new market, which no one [has seen]."

Related: Uruguay's Marijuana Cultivators Are Gradually Coming Out of Their Grow Closets.

On Sunday, Mujica turned executive power over to a man who had held it once previously. In 2005, Vázquez became the first president ever from the Broad Front party — the center-left coalition that has governed Uruguay ever since.

Born to a lower-class family, he became an oncologist, and then built up one of the primary clinics in the country. He is a former president of the Progreso football club in Montevideo. He joined the Socialist party and served as mayor of the capital Montevideo.

The main focus of drug policy during Vázquez's first presidential administration was a law regulating the sale and use of tobacco, which restricted advertising for cigarettes, increased taxes, and banned smoking in public places and closed spaces.

Vázquez has made sometimes contradictory remarks about drug policy in Uruguay.

"There are countries that liberated marijuana consumption decades ago, and now they are backtracking because the experience was not good," he said in 2012. "It's a story that ends badly."

But in 2013, while he said the government "should educate [people] so that drugs are not consumed," Vázquez also said he was in favor of "regulating consumption" of all drugs, even cocaine.

His statements sparked controversy last year, when Vázquez said the database of consumers, whose information will be kept confidential by law, will give the state "the possibility to attempt rehabilitation sooner" for people who ingest cannabis.

Late last year, he said he thought it was "unbelievable" that marijuana would be sold at pharmacies, "but if the law authorizes it, that's how it will be."

"We won't hesitate for an instant to make any corrections that may be necessary," Vázquez said.

A week later, Mujica responded. "That's his problem," Mujica said. "He should take it up with Congress."

On March 1, as Vázquez assumed the presidency, he laid out his government's primary policy platforms. He said that he would amplify the "prevention and control of tobacco, drugs, and alcohol consumption," but did not make any reference to marijuana legalization.

"I am here to comply with the law," Romani told VICE News, adding that he would be traveling to Vienna this month for a special UN assembly on drugs, to publicly defend Uruguay's progressive drug policy.

"The distrust of those who say we are discarding [the law] is ill-intentioned. If Uruguay can show the world that there is another way to regulate substances that harm the public health, we would be taking a big step forward," Romani said.

Related: An Energy Revolution Is Underway in Uruguay.

Follow Christian Muller on Twitter @cmuller17.