Ely is our correspondent in Uruguay. There, for us, he analyses the different aspects linked to cannabis in the first country to have allowed the sale of recreational cannabis on its land.
José Mujica or ‘el Pepe’ is an emblematic figure of the fight to legalise it. It’s in large part thanks to him that in 2013, the country became the first in the world to legalise weed. This old man with the puffy face and farmers clothes resembles a pensioner of the Uruguayan country side. He might not look sharp but he witnessed unprecedented success to his presidency. Strong leader of the coalition of left wing parties in his country, the succession of progressive reforms that he initiated triggered a strong media echo. This atypical person brought the attention of international media and was branded ‘the poorest president in the world’. It’s true, Mujica did not want to change his habits when he became president. Hence, he gave 90% of his revenues to not-for-profits and was living on slightly over 500 euros a month, and said he would make saving in case of difficult times. Mujica also refused to live in the presidential palace in order to stay in his countryside cottage, not so far from the capital. He chose his sobriety and cherished it. Mujic truly kept his old habits. However, he transformed the social landscape of Uruguay by legalising abortion, gay marriage and weed in 5 years as President. The first man to have legalised weed is an old farmer, but not only. He is also an old leader of a guerrilla group in the 60s, and spent the 70s in jail.
This old man legalised weed starting from the simple observation that the country was fighting narco-traffic and drug consumption for 100 years and it had been a total failure. For example, in Uruguay almost 10% of the population had smoked weed in the last 12 months, these habits don’t go away and people continue to find it illegally. So, Mujica put forward the idea of legalisation to fight against narco-trafficers by putting forward a market regulated by the state rather than a criminal one. The biggest motivation was to increase the security of the country. It was a 15 stage plan called ‘strategy for life & coexistence’ that he proposed as a project. Indeed, Mujica legalised weed with the concrete objective to replace the criminal market, without increasing consumption and for this, cannabis in Uruguay is not a high-profit market like in Canada or certain American states. Weed is sold between 1 and 2 euros for a gram, with a strict legal décor and a ban on tourists purcharsing it. (re-read: landscape of weed in Uuguay).
Furthermore, 66% of the Uruguayan population was not favourable to legalisation. Mujica therefore decided to legalise and regulate the sale and consumption of cannabis on the simple conviction that it would spread the ‘togetherness’ of the country, and this, despite unfavourable opinions and international pressure from banks. It is the not the legalisation that is the most interesting but the fact that a president took the risk of imposing a choice on his population, hindering their liberty to make their own choices. To understand Mujica and the impact he had, it is essential to go back on his revolutionary past and of political prisoner.
Let’s visit Latin America of the 1960s where democracies fall like dominos and military dictators attempt to eliminate the spread of communism. Uruguay proposed elections still, but the country was heavily corrupted and under the spell of the American superpower. All the countries of Latin America had their socialist guerrilla group, and in Uruguay they were called the ‘Tuparamos’.
Grandpa Mujica, in his thirties was one of the leaders of Tuparamos. This armed group led diverse actions to destabilise the political status-quo and American hegemony, fascism and far-right groups that were becoming more and more numerous. On the ideological spectrum, they were mostly left-wing, even if their profiles were quite varied. The group was in the media for having assassinated a CIA agent, who came to Uruguay to train the police in the repression of revolutionary communist groups. Basically, these American agents trained Latin American police forces in techniques of the most advanced torture. The murder of this CIA agent actually became the subject of a Costa-Gravas film ‘State of Siege’.
In 1973, Uruguay becomes a military dictatorship upheld by the American regime, and Pepe Mujica is imprisoned. He would stay 12 years in prison and would suffer numerous tortures, of which isolation marked him the most. The film ‘Companeros’ which came out in 2018 follows the story of his imprisonment and the physical, mental and psychological destruction inflicted upon him.
When he was released, he was diagnosed with heavy psychosis. Today, he looks back on those times with his head towards the ground. According to him, his imprisonment was the perfect time for him to elaborate an idea that he wanted to spread. For Mujica, politics was a way to put through his message, like you can see in his speech to the United Nations. In it he says we must spend time concentrating on what makes us happy, to not be chained back by consumption and that we must concentrate on our love. Happiness does not depend on external causes, but of ones-self, which is quite a strong message from someone who spent so long in isolation. His relationship with time and liberty to have time is present in his discourses. Another lesson he says to have learnt in prison is that we must not live in the past and we must always move forward. its in this time that he legislated his thoughts on society. From his experiences, Mujica knows the cost of liberty and as president, he offered the people a power to make their own choices. Legalisation of cannabis is an example of that.
At the end of the dictatorship, Mujica continued to lead political actions in a pacifist manner, in the name of the Tuparamos. Hence, the Tuparamos are one of the rare guerrilla groups to have become legitimate. They then allied with other leftist groups and extreme left group to integrate the ‘Frente Amlio’ which was one of the largest political parties in Uruguay. Mujica never renounced his past and his old-man’s presidency stayed in a continuity of his political actions as a guerrilla, with the same revolutionary willpower. On paper, legalisation seems evident and repression absurd, but Mujica is the first man to have done it and to have shown the world that it was possible.
Mujica is the first man to have legalised weed on a national level, because he is a revolutionary who believed in individual liberty.