Overview of drug policy, drug law and legislative trends in Uruguay

uruguayflagDrug consumption is not a crime in Uruguay. On 20 December 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise and regulate cannabis when President José Mujica enacted Law 19.172. This act regulates the production, marketing and consumption of cannabis. The state would henceforth control the entire cannabis industry chain, from production to consumption. The following questions explore recent developments on the drug policy issues in Uruguay.

  1. What are the trends in drug matters in Uruguay?
  2. What are the current drug laws in Uruguay?
  3. What drug law reforms have recently been proposed and/or implemented in the country?
  4. In what ways have drug laws impacted on the country's prison system and population?
  5. What does the law say about consumption? Is it a crime in the country?
  6. What provisions does the law make for problem drug users? Does the law guarantee that their rights will be respected?
  7. How does Uruguay positions itself in the international debate on drug policy? - Uruguay and INCB
  8. What role is civil society playing in the debate on drugs?
  9. Relevant drug laws and policy documents in the country

For the latest news on drug law reform in Uruguay click here. See also National Secretariat on Drugs (Junta Nacional de Drogas - JND) and the section on controlled regulation of the marijuana market.

1. What are the trends in drug matters in Uruguay?

Uruguay-ManifestacionUruguay has long had a high level of social tolerance to drug use, complemented by policies that prioritise minimising drug-related risks and harms. It became the first country in the world to legalise and regulate cannabis when President José Mujica enacted Law 19.172 on 20 December 2013. This act regulates the production, marketing and consumption of cannabis, while promoting information, education and prevention of cannabis use.

The House of Representatives had passed the executive bill on 31 July 2013. In his speech introducing the senate debate, Senator Roberto Conde presented the majority report, explaining that, "As an alternative to prohibitionist policies, the regulation of drug markets offers the state a means to implement more efficient and comprehensive initiatives for supply and demand reduction."

The state would henceforth control the entire cannabis industry chain, from production to consumption. Law 19.172 comes into force in 2014.

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2. What are the current drug laws in Uruguay?

justiceUruguay’s most recent drug legislation modification is Law 19.172, a reform of existing acts that brought radical change to the country’s approach to cannabis production and use.

The act relating to drug issues is Law 14.294 which was passed in 1974. It was modified first by 1998’s Law 17.016 and then by December 2013’s Law 19.172, Article 2 of which stipulates that: "Without prejudice to the provisions of Decree-Law No. 14.294 ... the state will take control of regulating the activities of import, export, planting, cultivation, harvesting, production, acquisition in any capacity, storage, marketing and distribution of cannabis and its derivatives, or hemp when appropriate, through the institutions to which it grants legal mandate."

The law thus allows the consumption of any substance (with the exception of cannabis, which now has its own rules) while penalising possession for purposes other than consumption. It does not, however, establish a legal mechanism for obtaining such substances or set maximum quantities for personal use – this is left to the judge's discretion.

The 1998 Law 17.016 replaced several of the provisions in 1974’s Law 14.294, and added five new chapters. Additional laws have been enacted in recent years, namely Law 18.046 in 2006, Law 17.835 in 2004 and Law 18.494 in 2009. Law 18.046 introduced reforms on the confiscation of property and important new money laundering legislation. It had previously been understood that public health was the sole legal interest served by drug law, but these reforms relating to money laundering extended legal interest to "the economic order of the state".

Drug legislation originally dealt with narcotic and psychoactive substances, but 1978’s Law 17.016 also included "chemical precursors or other chemical products". Rather than defining narcotic and psychoactive substances, Uruguayan legislation instead refers to the schedules contained in the 1961 and 1971 United Nations conventions.

The new cannabis regulation modifies Article 3 of Law 14.294 with respect to the planting, cultivation, harvesting and marketing of cannabis: "With regard to cannabis specifically, the growing or cultivation of plants must be authorised beforehand by the Cannabis Regulation and Control Institute (IRCCA)." Read the full text of the amended Article 3 here.

Article 30 of Law 14.294 states that: "Anyone who, without legal authorisation, produces – in any manner – raw materials or substances capable of producing psychological or physical dependency, as the case may be ... shall be punished by a prison sentence ranging from 20 months to 10 years."

Article 6 of the law 19.172 regulating cannabis qualifies the above article: "Anyone who produces marijuana by planting, growing and harvesting cannabis plants with psychoactive effects in accordance with the provisions in Article 3 of this law shall not be liable for prosecution." (See Article 6 of Law 19.172)

The unrestricted application of Article 30 of Law 14.294 to non-cannabinoid substances leads to the contradictory scenario of criminalising an individual possessing a reasonable quantity if he or she produced it (even though that production is preparation for use that is not considered criminal), but not criminalising an individual possessing a reasonable quantity if he or she purchased it.

Article 31 of Law 14.294 addresses drug trafficking, punishing the transport of large quantities of such substances, as well as the stages prior to transit. This article additionally decriminalises anyone who "has in his or her possession a reasonable quantity, exclusively for his or her personal consumption" and it is also modified by the new regulation. In the case of cannabis the quantity is now established at 40g. The amended text also states that: "anyone who keeps, holds, stores or possesses in their home a harvest of up to six cannabis plants with psychoactive effects (…) or a harvest belonging to the members of a cannabis club, shall not be affected by the provisions made in the first clause of this article." (Article 7, Law 19.172)

The penalties for drug-related offences range from a minimum of 12 to 20 months imprisonment to a maximum of 4 to 18 years. The 1998 amendment to 1974’s Law 14.294 was very important because the first time it allowed for the prosecution of such offences without the threat of imprisonment,  probation or conditional release. Now that minimum sentences are less than 24 months of prison, such offences do not necessarily result in jail time, and provisional liberty is allowed along with alternative sentences.

On Friday 2 May 2014, Uruguay unveiled the legal framework for state control and regulation of marijuana. This is the Act’s Regulatory Decree, in English. These are the enabling conditions for membership clubs in Uruguay.

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3. What drug law reforms have been recently proposed and/or implemented in the country?

autocultivoVarious political groupings have for years been advocating cannabis regulation to separate the market for soft drugs from the market for dangerous substances, particularly crack cocaine (paco), a drug whose market and consumption expanded in the early 2000s. With a view to public health, there goal has always been to keep the cannabis user away from the most addictive substances.

Summary of important pronouncements, initiatives and proposals to reform the law, 1999-2013

Uruguayan-MPs-vote-throug-008July 31, 2013 - The Uruguayan House of Representatives passed the bill that legalises and regulated the market of cannabis in the country, being the first in the world to do that. This is the text of the bill passed by the House of Representatives on July 31, 2013.

10 December 2013 - After a majority vote, the Senate passed the bill establishing "state control and regulation of the import, export, planting, cultivation, harvesting, production, acquisition, storage, marketing, distribution and consumption of marijuana." On 20 December, the government enacted Law 19.172 regulating the cannabis market. Uruguay thus becomes the first country in the world to regulate cannabis at every stage of production and use.

23 December 2013 – The Senate passed a bill on compulsory treatment for problem drug users. The proposal is currently awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives.

2 May 2014 - Uruguay unveiled marijuana law that will create the first regulated cannabis market in the world. This is the text of the Regulatory Decree of the Act.

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4. In what ways have drug laws impacted on the country's prison system and population?

prison-recove-1Uruguay's national prison system budget has been increased in recent years and conditions in the country’s jails are not as bad as in other Latin American countries. However, Uruguay’s jails are in crisis due to overcrowding, and there has been a marked increase in the prison population of young people from the lowest income groups and from other vulnerable sectors of society.

A 2010 study by WOLA and TNI entitled Systems Overload found that 11 per cent of Uruguay’s total prison population were in jail for drug-related crimes, and also noted an increase in the percentage of women behind bars for these offences. Crimes involving the trafficking and sale of narcotics are the reason why women are prosecuted in 37.3 per cent of cases, compared to 8.3 per cent for men. Although the percentage of the prison population convicted for drug-related crimes (11 per cent) is fairly low when compared with the percentage convicted of crimes against property and crimes against the person, the percentage of these detainees who were arrested by the police for possessing very small quantities of drugs is still high. People who were arrested in possession of less than 10g of cannabis account for 44 per cent of drug-related prosecutions.

This video from 2012 looks at the case of 66-year-old Alicia Castilla, who was jailed for three months for growing marijuana for personal use for medical reasons. The new regulations on cannabis will prevent such cases from happening again.

According to a 2012 study by SERPAJ entitled Hacia una Política de Estado en Privación de Libertad, drug-related offences account for the second highest percentage (15.3 per cent) of arrests for different types of crimes (see page 113 of the study). Similarly, Uruguay’s first national census of prisoners carried out in 2010 by the Department of Sociology at the Universidad de la República found that the largest percentage were being held for the crime of armed robbery (36.9 per cent of prisoners), followed by “the crimes of theft (14.8%), homicide (12.6%), and drug trafficking/narcotics offences (10.4%).” 

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5. What does the law say about consumption? Is it a crime in the country?

Drug consumption is not a crime in Uruguay. State law permits the use of any recreational substance and does not criminalise possession for personal use. Law 17.192 specifies 40g as the maximum amount of cannabis any individual can possess for personal use. However, the law does not specify a maximum amount for other substances, leaving this matter to the judge’s discretion.

Cannabis is again the exception when it comes to permissible ways of obtaining drugs. No such guidelines exist for other drugs, but cannabis may be obtained by growing it for personal use, by buying it from pharmacies and the Ministry of Health, or by being a member of a cannabis club.

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6. What provisions does the law make for problem drug users? Does the law guarantee that their rights will be respected?

The Uruguayan Senate recently approved a bill that defines how the state will respond to crisis situations in cases of problem drug use. On 23 December 2013 the senate approved the “Public health consortium to provide immediate care for people affected by problem drug use in a crisis situation” act. Among other provisions, this law mandates compulsory treatment for “problem drug users in crisis situations who pose a risk to themselves or to others”.

The initial proposal from the President’s office was to apply a Compulsory Treatment Order to anyone found to be under the influence of drugs in a public place, but compulsory treatment is a sensitive matter because of the risk of infringing human rights.  The draft law was debated in Parliament for a year and a half, during which time it underwent several modifications. The final version prevents any risk of abuse by providing safeguards for individuals subjected to these measures. The new law revokes Article 40 of Law 14.294 from 1974, which states that:

Anyone caught consuming narcotic substances or using psychoactive drugs improperly, or apprehended in circumstances that suggest that they have just done so while carrying narcotics for their personal use, must be brought before the sitting examining magistrates’ court so that it may order an examination of the arrested person by a doctor from the National Anti-Drug Addiction Commission and an expert in forensic medicine, who must produce their report within twenty-four hours. If the examination finds that the person is a drug addict, the judge shall order the person to undergo treatment in a public or private establishment or as an out-patient, providing that such treatment includes the medical check-ups established by the said National Commission.”

The Senate approval of this bill met with criticism from various civil society organisations that are concerned with human rights. They are calling for the law to be made more precise and clear regarding the legal process and to specify how the rights of drug users will be safeguarded. The bill must now be discussed and approved in the House of Representatives.

Several state agencies developed a comprehensive program of care and rehabilitation of addicts in prisons.

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7. How does Uruguay positions itselfs in the international debate on drug policy? - Uruguay and INCB

UNVienna1Uruguay has been unwavering in arguing for the need and the democratic right to launch a debate aimed at ending the ongoing war on drugs model. It has defended its position in all the most important international forums, including the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, CICAD, UNASUR, MERCOSUR, and the EU-LAC Co-operation Mechanism.  Uruguay has been a member of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs since 2008, having been re-elected to serve until 2014.

Uruguay’s has gained its prominent position on drug-related issues through its vigorous campaigns in political and diplomatic arenas for drug control policies that remain cognisant of human rights, emphasise civil society participation, remain impartial and egalitarian according to principles of mutual and shared responsibility, and avoid the stigmatisation of certain countries.

Uruguay has played a major role in the last five sessions of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna. The Uruguayan delegation at the 51st session of the CND in 2008 presented Resolution L.16, which petitioned for full conformity of human rights instruments and international drug control treaties. The petition was co-sponsored by Argentina, Bolivia, Switzerland and the European Union. Uruguay made the proposal to gain international recognition for the incorporation of human rights in drug control, harm reduction, and the urgent need for democratic debate. The draft resolution led to tense negotiations and much of its initial strength was lost in the final adopted version (51/12).

At the high-level segment of CND’s 52nd session in 2009, the Uruguayan delegation proposed an integrated international approach to balance policies for prevention and treatment with policies for supply reduction. It also advocated proportional sentencing criteria to avoid criminalizing harmless consumers, while also alleviating the prison crises affecting so many countries. The delegation also defended the right to health and championed the inclusion of harm reduction as best practice for focusing on social inclusion.

In July 2009, Uruguay’s then-President Tabaré Vázquez announced his intention to collaborate with Bolivia and the efforts of its president Evo Morales to change the way international drug control treaties dealt with the coca leaf.

At the 53rd session of the CND  in 2010, the Uruguayan delegation reiterated the principles raised in previous years.

At the 54th session in 2011 Uruguay stated that it wanted to, “foster democratic debate, without hidden agendas or dogmatism, on the international control system and respect for human rights with a focus that is truly integral and properly balanced, which is a challenge we still face.” It also proposed a resolution in favor of increased participation of civil society in the fight against the world drug problem.

In his presentation at the 55th session of the CND in 2012, Julio Calzada again focused on respect for human rights and recognition of the right of Andean peoples to the coca leaf.

In April 2012 at the Summit of the Americas, held in Cartagena, Colombia, Uruguay expressed its support for a debate on a change in the model.

On 18 and 19 April 2013, the first working meeting on drugs took place between Uruguay and Bolivia in Montevideo. The minutes of the meeting can be viewed here.

In his speech to the 43rd OAS General Assembly held in Guatemala from 4 to 6 June 2013, the head of the Uruguayan delegation reiterated his country's support for political dialogue on drugs. Referring specifically to cannabis reform in the country, he said, "We have a historical and moral authority in the matter, in order to understand that in a sovereign way, our government has taken the initiative to responsibly regulate cannabis market ."

Diego-CanepaAt the CND held in Vienna in March 2014, Diego Canepa, president of the National Drugs Council of Uruguay said, “Today more than ever we need the leadership and courage to enable us to discuss in the international community if a revision and modernization is required of the international instruments we have adopted in the last 50 years.”

On 16 April 16 2014 the Permanent Mission of Uruguay to the Organization of American States OAS presented the draft resolution entitled The Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the Search for New and Effective Approaches to Global Drug Problem Solutions in the Americas.

In this statement (video, from 7’ 15) by Ambassador Milton Romani Gerner, Representative of Uruguay to the OAS in the Dialogue with Civil Society of the 44th General Assembly of the OAS Asuncion, he refers to the implementation of the regulated cannabis market in his country.  Video (from 7' 15)

Statement by the Head of the Delegation of Uruguay, Mr. Milton Romani Gerner, in the High Level Segment - 58 Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Vienna - March 2015.

On the impact of the world drug problem in the exercise of human rights, Uruguay introduced in May 2015 a contribution to the implementation of the resolution "Contribution of the Human Rights Council to the Special Session of the UN General Assembly 2016 on the issue of the world drug problem."

Uruguay and INCB

Uruguay’s decision to opt for a regulated domestic cannabis market has had a major impact in the international media. The eyes of the world are watching this small South American country with the audacity to break the taboo surrounding cannabis. The Uruguayan proposal could become the historic step that many stakeholders around the world have been waiting for to end the impasse in drug policy – as President Mujica said, “someone has to be first.” Uruguay’s decision has led to tensions with the UN drug control system. According to experts from WOLA and TNI:

"INCB president Raymond Yans of Belgium wasted no time in denouncing Uruguay. At the UN General Assembly session in New York on June 26 … Yans also issued a thinly-veiled threat that Uruguay’s move toward regulated cannabis could jeopardize the country’s access to essential medicines. Such attacks are no doubt intended to isolate and stigmatize Uruguay and to discourage any other government from raising its voice on Uruguay’s behalf, or consider taking a similar path."

On 19 November 2013, the INCB published this bulletin expressing its concern about Uruguay’s cannabis law.

Mr Yans’s attacks against Uruguay intensified in December 2013, following the announcement of the result of the Senate vote giving the green light to the law to regulate the domestic cannabis market. The INCB president described the legalisation of marijuana in Uruguay as "pirate attitudes". In response, Uruguay’s ambassador to the OAS, Milton Romani, said that "the position of the INCB president is not that of the organisation as a whole." Uruguay’s President Mujica also reacted strongly to Mr Yans’ statements. For further information about the different positions taken by the UN organisation and Uruguay, we recommend reading INCB vs Uruguay: the art of diplomacy.

In early February 2014 a Uruguayan delegation met with the INCB in Vienna to explain the scope of the new law. In this Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Uruguay document, ministry undersecretary Luis Porto presents considerations "of the philosophy behind the policy followed, the relationship between INCB and Uruguay in recent months regarding the law and 19,172 recently passed ".      

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8. What role is civil society playing in the debate on drugs?

marcha-clubes1-300x201Regulación Responsable is a platform for citizens and civil society organisations that have supported the initiative to regulate marijuana in Uruguay right from the start. It has been very active in disseminating information about the social, health and economic benefits of regulation. Those involved include opinion leaders, advocates from the realms of culture, academia, health and law, as well as individuals from many other sections of society. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former president of Brazil and current executive director of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, has publicly expressed his support for this platform.

In July 2013, shortly before the vote in the House of Representatives on the cannabis regulation bill, more than a hundred civil society organisations from around the world gave their backing to it in an open letter.

After the cannabis law was approved, growers set up the Uruguayan National Federation of Cannabis Growers as an umbrella organisation for marijuana producers. Those eligible to join this federation include people who choose to grow their own plants at home, people who wish to set up members-only cannabis clubs, and people interested in growing cannabis to be sold in pharmacies.

Communiqué of the NGO Proderechos after the publication of the Regulatory Decree law to regulated the cannabis market.

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9. Relevant drug laws and policy documents in the country

Legislative and Government Documents

Studies, surveys and other documents

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For the latest news on drug law reform in Uruguay click here. See also National Secretariat on Drugs (Junta Nacional de Drogas - JND) and the section on controlled regulation of the marijuana market.