Juan Palese, 25, stands outside the door of his Urugrow shop, sharing a red-tipped marijuana joint with a group of young friends. The sweet, pungent aroma of cannabis permeates the street as chattering students from Montevideo’s nearby school of social sciences walk heedlessly by.
“Two policemen live here, right next door,” Palese says with a mischievous look, leaning into the entrance of an old house next to his “grow shop”, where he sells fertilisers and compost for growing cannabis at home. Business is good, and a steady trickle of customers arrive throughout the afternoon.
The scene could easily present an idyllic testament as to how quickly and painlessly Uruguay, the tiny South American nation (population 3.4 million) that became the first in the world to legalise the sale of marijuana last year, has adapted to its new status as a haven for weed smokers. Except that today presidential elections are being held here in which the survival of the country’s historic marijuana law is at stake.
Overnight, the passage of the law turned Uruguay’s president, José Mujica, into an international progressive superstar. During his five-year presidency, Mujica, 79, revitalised Uruguay’s economy, slashed poverty from almost 21% to 11.5% and legalised abortion, making his country the first and only one in South America so far to do so. (Elsewhere in Latin America, abortion is available only in Cuba and in Mexico City).
But those gains could be challenged by his successor, who will be decided among front-runner Tabaré Vázquez, a 74-year-old oncologist from Mujica’s own Frente Amplio (Broad Front) party; Luis Lacalle Pou, 41, an energetic conservative from the Partido Nacional (National party); and Pedro Bordaberry, 54, who is likely to throw his votes behind Pou in what opinion polls suggest will be a tightly fought second round between him and Vázquez on 30 November.
The two front-runners have already said that they will tinker with the marijuana law if elected, while Bordaberry, who the pollsters predict will take 18% of the vote, makes it clear that he has no time for it.
“We may be few people here in Uruguay, but we’re not guinea pigs,” he said in an interview on Thursday at the headquarters of his Colorado party overlooking Pocitos beach in Montevideo, reflecting the widely held view that the US and Europe are using the country as a testing ground for drug legalisation.
In particular, Bordaberry questions Mujica’s proposal to sell government-controlled marijuana through pharmacies to registered consumers. “Pharmacies might as well be asked to sell whisky,” he said. “By the same token, we should legalise the sale of cocaine and heroin.” Behind the counter at Yuyo Brothers, another shop selling cannabis pipes and herb grinders in a shopping mall in central Montevideo, Juan Tubino agrees, ironically. “Bordbaberry is right, all drugs should be legalised. And, of course, pharmacies should not sell marijuana, it should be sold by shops like mine.”
The fact is that government-controlled marijuana is not for sale yet in Uruguay, due to disagreement over the exact implementation of the new law. “If you want to buy marijuana today, you still have to resort to drug dealers,” says Tubino, shrugging his shoulders.
One of Uruguay’s foremost artists, singer-songwriter Fernando Cabrera, 57, has his own reservations regarding legal marijuana.
“It’s got a lot of different angles,” he says in an interview shortly before playing a sold-out one-man acoustic set in the basement of the fashionable restaurant Paullier y Guaná, a striking old house that has become the favourite haunt for the Montevideo artistic community. “I think taking the drug business out of the hands of the mafias is a good idea. But corrections will be needed after a trial period.”
Cabrera seems a little puzzled by the international attention attracted by the marijuana law. Like many other Uruguayans, he considers it a natural extension of the country’s surprisingly liberal tradition.
He points to liberal reforms in the early 20th century, such as divorce (which included being granted at the sole request of the wife), a strict separation of church and state, the legalisation of abortion for a brief period in the 1930s and the legal consumption of all drugs, which was never prohibited here.
Such freedoms, together with its slow-paced and even-keeled democracy, have made Uruguay a unique oasis of calm in the turbulent world of Latin American politics.
“We have a strongly developed sense of consensus through dialogue,” says Cabrera. “Even if it takes years, we go sector by sector seeking agreement, it’s just a natural part of Uruguayan political culture.”
Cabrera is more concerned about whether a new eight-hour limit set by Mujica on work days for farm labourers will be respected, a much more burning issue than legal marijuana in a country that is almost totally dependent on agricultural exports.
“I think the marijuana law is positive but not completely perfect as it stands today,” says the artist. “I don’t think people will accept signing a list with your thumbprint to obtain legal marijuana. The shadow of our last dictatorship still lingers in Uruguay’s collective mind too strongly.”
Uruguay’s 1973-85 dictatorship has left deep social scars here. Even though only 186 people were murdered by the military, compared with more than 20,000 during the 1976-83 dictatorship in neighbouring Argentina, a large number of government opponents were imprisoned for lengthy periods.
Mujica himself spent 13 years in captivity, including several in solitary confinement, because of his membership of the leftwing Tupamaros urban guerrilla group in the 1960s and 1970s.
“I’m not going to register [to vote],” says Pato Teo, a 28-year-old waitress with Rastafarian dreadlocks who works in the riverside Parque Rodó neighbourhood of Montevideo. Despite her apparently carefree attitude, dark shadows loom in her past.
Teo was born in Sweden to political exiles of the military regime. She was eight years old before she came to Uruguay, bearing a Swedish passport and feeling confused about her identity. “I went to a school in Malmö, where most of the other kids were also the children of exiles,” she says.
All four of her grandparents had been imprisoned by the regime, two of them for 13 years each. Their family home, a beautiful old property on a tree-lined street sloping down to the River Plate, was confiscated by the military. The state still holds it today, more than three decades later. Her family’s efforts to reclaim their property through the courts have proved fruitless even under Mujica’s government.
When asked how she feels about the marijuana law, she seems frightened. “Our family had to go into exile for its political beliefs,” she says breathlessly. “I would never put my name or stamp my thumbprint on an official list of marijuana consumers; imagine how that could be used if things changed.”
The new law has definitely liberalised attitudes towards marijuana in Uruguay and today weed is smoked openly on the streets of Montevideo. But full implementation of the law remains distant.
Questions remain, including whether the substance will be sold at pharmacies, as originally planned. Or will the new government that comes into office next year propose a different marketing system? No one seems to know yet.
“We’re in limbo right now,” says Palense, blowing cannabis smoke as we stand on the pavement outside his shop. “We’re on the fifth ring of Saturn.”