To Change Marijuana Laws, Throw Caution to the Wind

Lawmakers like to urge "caution" when it comes to marijuana legalization.

"It would be prudent for Massachusetts to take a cautious approach to considering marijuana legalization", reads a recent report from the state committee.

"It’s a cautious bill," boasted Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, when the state Senate passed a legalization measure.

Even Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper urged other lawmakers to take caution, despite coming around on the issue of legal weed—a policy he initially opposed.

But a look at the world's first legal-marijuana country shows that caution can be a bad thing.

Uruguay passed cannabis legalization in December 2013, becoming the first nation in the world to completely legalize the drug. The move was widely hailed by drug reform advocates, but more than two years later, the government has yet to implement the law.

"Rather than serving as a model for other countries contemplating cannabis legalization, Uruguay has become a cautionary tale about the difficulties of creating a marijuana market," reports Foreign Policy.

The law allows access to cannabis through home cultivation, Spanish-style collectives and buying it from a pharmacy. The government previously estimated that consumers would be able to purchase weed at pharmacies by early 2015. Not only have there been no sales yet, but the cannabis industry is suffering despite having enthusiastic investors. 

According to the report, the biggest factor in Uruguay's lack of access is the government's excessive caution, "which has made it impossible for the law to be implemented as intended."

Milton Romani Gerner, the secretary-general of Uruguay’s National Drug Board, told Foreign Policy that the government is taking it slow thanks to the international scrutiny over legalization. They don't want to mess it up and give ammo to skeptics, which is an admirable goal.

Unfortunately, the excessive caution has potentially caused the black market to get even bigger—the government seized a record amount of illegal cannabis in 2015. The problem that legalization was supposed to solve is just getting worse.

It's unlikely that any government, no matter how cautious, will get regulations right on the first try. Legalizing cannabis requires recognizing and accepting that regulators will learn as they venture into uncharted territory. We've seen this as U.S. states with legal marijuana continue to develop new laws to address concerns like pesticides and edibles labeling.

The government has said cannabis will be available in pharmacies by mid-2016. That's looking unlikely at this rate. But here's hoping that Uruguayans will be able to access legal marijuana sooner rather than later.

(Photo Courtesy of Inhabitat)

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