When Uruguayans head to the polls for the second-round of the Presidential elections on 24 November, they are not only deciding on the next government but also the future of legal marijuana. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legally regulate cannabis from seed to smoke. Despite international acclaim, cannabis reform was highly controversial in Uruguay. Public opinion overwhelmingly rejected the reform and the bill passed both the lower and upper houses of Congress with votes exclusively from the left-of-centre Broad Front. Notwithstanding its past, marijuana legalization’s future seems surprisingly safe, in spite Broad Front being in danger of losing the presidency it has occupied since 2005.
In the first round on 27 October 2019, Broad Front candidate Daniel Martínez received 39,2% of the votes, while the right-of-centre opposition candidate Luis Lacalle Pou from the National Party received 28,6%. Facing each other in the run-off, Lacalle Pou seems poised to win, as he can count on the support of the smaller Colorado Party and Open Forum. These additional votes put the National Party in a favourable position to win the presidency in the second round. Lacalle Pou leads Martínez by a healthy margin according to public opinion polls. What does the likely end of the Broad Front government mean for one of its landmark reforms, marijuana legalization?
Cannabis reform has not been an issue on the campaign trail. A review of the electoral programs of the three major opposition parties reveals that only one of them proposes the repeal of legal cannabis. Yet, the joint program agreed on by the opposition parties after the first-round, mentions neither cannabis nor marijuana. Such a low profile contrasts with the electoral campaign five years ago. Lacalle Pou, who also ran in that election, vowed to repeal marijuana legalization, proclaiming: “Don’t plant anything!” Considering his prior opposition, the fact that Lacalle Pou was the first politician to speak out in favour of liberalizing cannabis in 2010, cannot account for his current silence. What has changed since then, and why is Uruguay’s legal cannabis likely to be safe?
First, legal cannabis is now operational in Uruguay. This is important because once institutions, such as a legal cannabis market, are established they tend to persist and are difficult to dispose of entirely. The literature on institutional change consistently finds that institutions are durable and “sticky.” Self-reinforcing processes result in “comparative statics” that are it difficult to dislodge. Institutions create vested interests in and powers to maintain the status quo. For instance, in the case of legal cannabis in Uruguay, money has been invested, companies set up, contracts signed and jobs created. All of which suggests that a wholesale repeal of Uruguay’s legal cannabis industry is unlikely without a decisive moment of change, a so-called “critical juncture.” Rather, either the grafting of new rules on top of the existing ones, what the literature calls “layering,” or the persistence of formal regulations but alteration in their operation, what the literature calls “drift,” are more likely.
Second, the international context has become more favourable for legal cannabis. In 2012, there were zero jurisdictions in the world with de jure legalized marijuana. Nonetheless, research has found that increasing international support and drug policy debates opened a “window of opportunity” for domestic reform in Uruguay. Since then there has been a growing trend toward cannabis reform: Luxembourg and Mexico are seriously debating reform, an increasing number of US states have legalized marijuana, and in 2018 Canada became the second country to legally regulate its cannabis market. This last change in particular shapes dynamics of marijuana legalization elsewhere. The listing of cannabis companies on the Canadian stock exchange has resulted in a so-called “green gold rush.” Multi-national cannabis companies are not only beefing up their political lobbying, but also investing in the cannabis industry in Uruguay. Economic interests empowered by international changes are unlikely to stand idly by while the first country in the world to legally regulate cannabis reverses its policy.
Third, there is little political benefit in repealing cannabis regulation. Cannabis does not seem to have the sufficient salience to sway voters. As former-president José “Pepe” Mujica’s chief-of-staff told me: “We realized that this just isn’t what most people care about.” While public opinion strongly rejected marijuana legalization in 2013, research suggests that public support for legal cannabis has been growing. In 2017, one survey showed that those in favour of legal cannabis surpassed those against for the first time. Furthermore, research has found that organized cannabis activism was key for achieving success. In contrast, there has never been organized societal opposition, and it is unlikely to emerge now. Without strong societal demand for and opposition to re-criminalizing cannabis, radical changes seem unlikely.
In sum, while the Broad Front’s days in government seem numbered, the innovative legal regulation of cannabis which it enacted in 2013 appears likely to persist. Institutional inertia, international change and societal support suggest that legal marijuana has a future in Uruguay, despite its partisan past. However, this does not mean that Uruguay’s “middle ground approach to cannabis legalization,” its unique blend of strong state controls and different modes of access, will necessarily survive unchanged. In fact, Lacalle Pou has previously hinted at a need for reforms to cannabis regulation. Yet, there is little indication that marijuana legalization will go up in smoke as result of the Uruguayan elections.