By Leonardo Haberkorn
MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY: The government of Uruguay makes Scotch whisky. It also makes and sells rum, vodka and cognac, and has done so for nearly a century. Many people consider this sideline of the state to be a historical accident — a wasteful and even eccentric contradiction.
But President Jose Mujica says Uruguay’s long experience at the center of the nation’s liquor business makes it more than capable of dominating another substance: marijuana.
Final Senate approval of Uruguay’s marijuana law is expected by late September, and the government plans to license growers, sellers and users as quickly as possible thereafter to protect them from criminal drug traffickers, said ruling party Sen. Lucia Topolansky, who is also Uruguay’s first lady.
The law specifically creates a legal marijuana monopoly, making the government alone responsible for importing, producing, obtaining, storing, commercializing, and distributing a drug still considered illegal around the world.
A state entity will license producers and control marijuana’s distribution and sale through the same neighborhood pharmacies that sell prescription medicines and toothpaste. Purchases by licensed users will be limited to 1.4 ounces a month. Pot-growing cooperatives will be encouraged, using government-approved seeds, and people registered with the state will be able to grow up to six plants at home for personal use, as long as they harvest no more than 17 ounces a year.
The project passed the House by one vote, and while the ruling Broad Front coalition has an easier majority in the Senate, Mujica has been campaigning actively for its passage, reminding Uruguayans that their government has been controlling the market for addictive substances ever since the beginning of the 20th century, when President Jose Batlle y Ordonez wanted the state to monopolize alcohol production.
“Don Jose Batlle y Ordonez had courage,” Mujica said in one of his folksy nationwide radio talks, which sound much like the “fireside chats” that President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to broadcast to Americans. “The state grabbed it and made a monopoly of alcohol, because it couldn’t stop the booze, and he said ‘at least don’t poison the people — the booze should be good.’ ”
Batlle y Ordonez was ahead of his time in promoting social change in Latin America, from the separation of church and state to the eight-hour workday and maternity leave. And he had several goals for alcohol: He wanted the whiskey to generate government revenues and guarantee a profit stream for farmers, funding the production of a national fuel so that Uruguay’s cars and trucks wouldn’t need imported gasoline.
Uruguay wasn’t alone in that fight: In 1925 Henry Ford was promoting alcohol as the fuel of the future, and it was being blended with gasoline from France to the Philippines. But like many other countries, Uruguay never achieved this energy independence. Oil companies won an intense global campaign to focus on fossil fuels, a trend that held until Brazil started using alcohol blends in the 1980s.
Batlle y Ordonez died in 1929 without seeing his dreams realized, but his spirit as a statesman inspired Uruguay’s congress two years later to create Ancap, a state fuel and hard-liquor monopoly that still refines imported oil and distills liquor. Topolansky agrees that whiskey-making is a good model for the marijuana project.
“Back then people were making wood alcohol and other very toxic blends. So the government said ‘the people are going to keep drinking, but we have to offer a quality product, that doesn’t carry dangerous side-effects.’ And the state took over production,” Topolansky explained.