After legalization, Uruguayans change minds about cannabis

When lawmakers from Uruguay’s ruling party marked a global first by voting to legalize the country’s domestic cannabis industry in 2013, they did so despite strong public and political opposition. Four years later and just over six months since a handful of pharmacies began selling recreational cannabis, the number of Uruguayans who support the law has overtaken those who don’t, according to a survey by a local market research company, as reported by local news media (in Spanish, behind paywall).

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According to Factum, as reported by Búsqueda, 44.3 percent of Uruguayans are in favor of the law, while 41.4 percent oppose it. The mood on the ground strongly correlates to political allegiances, with government-party supporters strongly in favor and vice-versa.

“Although the margin of error doesn’t allow us to say that there’s a statistically significant difference, we can affirm that for the first time the tendency (to oppose legalization) is reverted,” said Marcos Baudean, one of the researchers who worked on the project. The study also shows that even among those who disagree with the law, most would see it amended rather than struck down.

The survey was done in late 2017 and was commissioned by Monitor Cannabis, an online educational platform, in coordination with researchers from national and international universities, and a national government body. It surveyed 2,181 people aged 15 through 65, following the same geographical distribution used in national drugs consumption surveys by the government body in charge of crafting Uruguay’s drugs policies.

Speculating on reasons for the change in public opinion, Baudean said the implementation of the law hadn’t produced the “disastrous” consequences critics said it would.

“The bogeyman brought by regulation never appeared,” he said.

He also suggested the initial success of cannabis sales in pharmacies helped reverse opposition to the law.

“Public fears and doubts about the law … were based on unknowns and the fears were therefore exaggerated and had no answer in reality,” said John Walsh, director for drug policy and the Andes at the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA), a human rights group.. “But as implementation has proceeded, step by step and fairly slowly, I think most Uruguayans have seen those fears were unjustified.”

When legalization was first ratified, 60 to 70 percent of the public was against. However, Walsh says it’s hard to know how strongly they felt about the issue given the lack of detailed surveys.

He also suggested Uruguay’s experience in destigmatizing the idea that drug use drives criminality could be a lesson for other countries.

“For those politicians who are interested in reform but don’t feel they have the political space to pursue it, I think Uruguay’s experience in a gradual shift toward public acceptance suggests a way forward,” he told WikiTribune.

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