When Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the marijuana market, it took on a daring challenge: to dispute the business of that drug with the narcos, from production to sale. It was "a measure against narco-trafficking (to) steal its market," explained then-Uruguayan President José Mujica, a leftist leader who promoted this policy. Six years after the approval of that law that drew international attention in December 2013, the South American country shows ambiguous results in the area of drugs.

On the one hand, official estimates released in January indicate that the regulation of cannabis for recreational purposes took more than US$22 million off the illegal market. Much of the illegally pressed and imported herb from Paraguay, which used to be the only consumption option for Uruguayans, was replaced by higher quality domestic cannabis flowers or buds, which can now be smelled on the streets of Montevideo.

At the same time, studies show an increase in the number of marijuana users in Uruguay, where there is still a lucrative black market for the drug. Furthermore, violence linked to drug trafficking has reached alarming levels in this country of just 3.4 million people, which this year had different scandals involving the shipment of large loads of cocaine to Europe.

"It's hard to change, it's not going to be magic," Mujica said in a recent dialogue with BBC Mundo about the results of the law. But how much has the drug market in Uruguay changed so far with its marijuana law?

A market of local growers

Uruguayan legislation enabled both private cultivations of cannabis for recreational use and a state-controlled system for the production and sale of marijuana in pharmacies. There are 38,771 people registered to buy the herb in pharmacies, according to data from the government's Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCAA) updated this week.

The number of companies authorized to grow marijuana rose from two to five in October, in response to what the IRCAA defined as a "sustained increase in the number of people registered to legally access non-medical cannabis" in the network of 17 authorized pharmacies. In addition, 7,922 people have registered as home growers (who can have up to six cannabis plants in their home) and 145 membership clubs (which can have up to 45 members and 99 plants each).

But only one in three users in Uruguay obtained marijuana on the regulated market last year, according to an official study presented Wednesday. A major change occurred in the origin of the drug. "Today, the main supplier of the marijuana market is the local growers, not the traffickers," said sociologist Marcos Baudean, professor at the ORT University in Montevideo and member of Monitor Cannabis, a project that evaluates regulation within the framework of the University of the Republic.

But he warned that most of these growers lack registration as required by law, so there is a hidden flow of domestic marijuana, apart from the lower quality illegally imported marijuana, which is consumed mostly by people with low incomes. "The growers generally grow for themselves, they can grow a little more to sell, and a lot of them share their product with others. That's what has spread the consumption of buds," Baudean told BBC Mundo.

In downtown Montevideo, inside one of the shops that have flourished in the city to supply all kinds of products for growing marijuana, the owner said many consumers avoid official registration because they don't trust the government. "The black market has more accessibility, variety" and there are "professionals who prefer not to register," explained the woman, who preferred not to be identified for this article.

The data presented by the government shows an increase in the prevalence of Uruguayans who used marijuana at least once in the past year: from 9.3% in 2014 to 14.6% in 2018. But Baudean said it is "positive" that the volume of grass consumed is growing at a slower rate than the number of users, for a total market of about 40 tons or US$45.5 million annually.

Waves of cocaine and violence

The marijuana law was Uruguay's response to the country's growing challenges with drug trafficking, including the violence associated with the use of hard drugs such as cocaine base paste. And official data presented Wednesday show a decline in drug crimes. But the drug and crime problems are far from gone from the concerns of Uruguayans, who last month elected as their future president opponent Luis Lacalle, who has ruled out repealing the marijuana law.

Some analysts point out that current socialist President Tabaré Vázquez, Mujica's successor, lacked the determination to shore up the law at its weak points, create prevention programs and strengthen public security. Uruguay remains far from the region's most violent countries' crime rates, but last year it had a 45.8% increase in homicides compared to 2017, according to official data. The country's homicide rate, which two decades ago was comparable to Europe, climbed for the first time into double digits: 11.8 per 100,000 residents.

Three out of five murders committed in Uruguay in 2018 were cases of "criminal conflict," the government said. Many associates this directly with narcotics. "The conflict between trafficking groups at the domestic level has gotten worse. But that's not because of the regulation of marijuana: they continue to dispute territories for illegal drugs, cocaine and base paste," Baudean said. "It was a bit of an exaggeration to believe that with the legalization of marijuana the problems with drug trafficking would end," he said.

Data from Monitor Cannabis indicates that the percentage of Uruguayans who say they have used cocaine also grew during a period of economic prosperity: It went from 0.2% in 2001 to 2.9% in 2017. Uruguay was also rocked this semester by news of large cocaine shipments seized in Europe that had departed from its territory, even though the country is not a producer of the drug.

In July, a plane carrying 600 kilograms (1,640 pounds) of cocaine was found to have arrived in France from Uruguay, and the following month, a container was found in Hamburg that had been shipped from Montevideo with 4,500 kilograms (1,960 pounds) of cocaine inside. Experts then assessed that the drug traffickers chose Uruguay for their international routes because it had less strict controls than other countries in the region.

And some even suggested that the country had become a new center of interest for international drug trafficking. However, Chloé Carpentier, head of the drug investigation section at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (Unodc), said at the time that it was "too early" to establish whether Uruguay was part of a new trend. He noted that at the global level there are changes in the organizations of narcotics, less integrated than before, and a considerable increase in the production of cocaine to be distributed in the world by routes that "change all the time.

"The (global) market is expanding," Carpentier told BBC Mundo.

Last month, another large shipment of cocaine in the port of Montevideo was seized by authorities: more than three tons in a container from Paraguay with the final destination in Benin. Mujica said that "cocaine of the highest purity is manufactured everywhere, that it is consumed by Europeans, Americans, those with high purchasing power" and one problem derived from that is the base paste that arrives in Uruguay as a waste for consumption.

"We are flooded with this shit, which has nothing to do with marijuana. But the base paste is making us a mess that I think we have to deal with somehow," he said. Although he admitted that the marijuana law "lacks" the ability to achieve its goals, he said it should be maintained as "an alternative to a soft drug in order to avoid the others.

"The repressive drug policy is a failure and this has to be as the Vietnamese defined it: a battle of the whole people. And if we don't move, we sound," he said, an expression that colloquially in his country means having a bad end.

Source BBC Mundo