Uruguay’s Cannabis Reform Sparks Re-evaluation of International Drug Regulations

By Sydney Wright

Uruguay Regulates Recreational Cannabis with New Law

In 2013, a bill was signed into law legalizing the cultivation of cannabis in Uruguay.[1] By having the state fully regulate the production and sale of cannabis, the aim of Law No. 19.172 is to protect Uruguayan citizens from the dangers linked to the illegal drug trafficking and to reduce organized crime associated with the drug trade.[2] To undercut the price of cannabis sold on the black-market, the government does not tax the sale of cannabis.[3] The law is also meant to remedy problematic drug use and its damaging effect on the health of citizens and the Uruguayan economy.[4]


Law 19.172 provides that authorized clubs of fifteen to forty-five members are responsible for the growing and harvesting cannabis and may maintain up to ninety-nine plants.[5] The legal marijuana cultivated by these authorized clubs is then available for purchase at certain approved pharmacies by consumers who are registered with the Cannabis Regulation and Control Institute.[6] Although the law took several years to implement, 19,000 Uruguayans are now registered to legally purchase cannabis at 12 designated pharmacies.[7] Since the law took full effect in 2017, Uruguay’s drug-related crime rate has dropped 20%.[8]


Despite Positive Results, There’s One Negative to Uruguay’s Law 19172

Uruguay, along with 184 other signatories,[9] is a party to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.[10] Article 4 of the Convention mandates “the parties shall take such legislative and administrative measures . . . to limit exclusively to medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import, distribution of, trade in, use and possession of drugs.”[11]Under the Convention, cannabis is listed as a Schedule I and Schedule IV[12]  drug. Schedule I is a list comprised of drugs considered to be addictive and that present a risk of abuse.[13] Schedule IV includes drugs like heroin and other substances considered the most addictive and harmful.[14]


Despite being in clear breach of international law, Uruguay defends its policies by pointing to other, more important legal obligations, such as protecting human rights.[15] The government also claims that its policies better protect the health and welfare of its citizens and humankind, something that prior drug control treaties have tried and failed to achieve.[16]


Initially, president of the International Narcotics Control Board (enforcer of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs) condemned Uruguay for breaking international law.[17] However, as Canada and a growing number of U.S. states also move to regulate cannabis just as Uruguay has, it is becoming more obvious that the Board and the outdated Convention have little influence over preventing nations from legalizing recreational cannabis use.[18]


As cannabis regulation becomes more accepted throughout the Americas, tensions will only grow between countries seeking to regulate cannabis and the U.N. drug control system if the control mechanisms are not updated.[19]


The Possible Solution: Removing Cannabis from Schedules I and IV

The World Health Organization (WHO) provides recommendations regarding psychoactive substances currently regulated by the Convention.[20] WHO, through its Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD), forms its recommendations using an evidence-based research process that assesses the potential risks and benefits of a certain substance.[21] At its 38th Meeting in December of 2016, the ECDD began the process of what could lead to removing certain types of cannabis for medical purposes from Schedule I of the Convention.[22]


At the 38th meeting, the ECDD recommended the following substances for pre-review: cannabis and cannabis resin, extracts and tinctures of cannabis, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and stereoisomers of THC.[23] A pre-review is simply a preliminary process to determine whether a critical review of a substance by an Expert Committee is justified.[24] In November of 2017, the ECDD conducted a pre-review of CBD, which is not currently listed in the Schedules of the Convention, but is still problematic as it is an extract cannabis.[25] Two Expert Reviews were then conducted, with both concluding that CBD should not be added to the Convention’s Schedule.[26]


At its 40th Meeting, the ECDD plans to address the four remaining cannabis-related substances recommended for pre-review (cannabis and cannabis resin, extracts and tinctures of cannabis, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and stereoisomers of THC) and consider whether those that are listed on the Convention’s Schedules should be either removed or placed at a different level of control.[27]


Should the ECDD find that the remaining four substances be removed from the Convention’s Schedules, this could remedy the issue of Uruguay’s Law 19.172 conflicting with the Convention’s parameters. It would also lead to a more lenient drug control system that better embraces the shift towards regulating recreational cannabis use seen in the Americas. Regardless, the ECDD’s re-evaluation of the scheduling of cannabis-related substances will ensure participating parties that current scheduling has been scrutinized through a modern


[1] See generally, Ley No. 19.172, Diciembre 20, 2013, Diario Oficial [D.O.]. No. 28878 (Uruguay).

[2] Id., art. 4.

[3] Decreto No. 120/2014, Reglamentacion de la Ley 19.172 Relativo a la Regulacion y Control del Cannabis, art. 21, [D.O.], Mayo 19, 2014, http://www.ircca.gub.uy/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Decreto_reglamentacion_ley_19.172.pdf.

[4] Ley No. 19.172 art. 4, Diciembre 20, 2013, Diario Oficial [D.O.]. No. 28878 (Uruguay).

[5] Id. art. 5.

[6] Id. art. 28.

[7] George Engels, et al., Uruguay Leads World in Cannabis Regulation but U.S. Law Intrudes, WikiTribune (Feb. 28, 2018), https://www.wikitribune.com/story/2018/02/28/drugs/uruguay-leads-world-in-cannabis-regulation-but-us-law-intrudes/44675/.

[8] Crime Rate Drops But Uruguay Struggles with Illicit Sale of Cannabis to Tourists, TeleSUR (Jan. 13, 2018), https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Crime-Rate-Drops-but-Uruguay-Struggles-with-Illicit-Sale-of-Cannabis-to-Tourists-20180113-0015.html

[9] Status of Treaties, United Nations Treaty Collection, https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=VI-18&chapter=6&clang=_en (last visited Mar. 5, 2018, 3:32 PM).

[10] See generally, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, The International Drug Control Conventions (2013), https://www.unodc.org/documents/commissions/CND/Int_Drug_Control_Conventions/Ebook/The_International_Drug_Control_Conventions_E.pdf.

[11] Id. art. 4.

[12]  The International Drug Control Conventions, Schedules of the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, as at 18 October 2017 (Oct. 18, 2017) http://undocs.org/ST/CND/1/Add.2/Rev.3.

[13] Transnat’l Inst., The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition 8 (2014), https://www.tni.org/files/download/rise_and_decline_web.pdf.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 69.

[16] Id.

[17] Engels, supra note 7.

[18] Id.

[19] Transnat’l Inst., supra note 13, at 70.

[20] Expert Comm. on Drug Dependence, Presentation on Process and Recommendations, http://www.unodc.org/documents/commissions/CND/CND_Sessions/CND_60Reconvened/60th_rec_CND_WHO_ECDD_presentation.pdf.


[22] See generally, World Health Organization [WHO], Comm. on Narcotic Drugs, Extract from the Rep. of the Thirty-Eighth Expert Comm. on Drug Dependence, WHO Doc. E/CN.7/2016/CRP.13 (Nov. 30, 2016), http://www.who.int/medicines/access/controlled-substances/ECN72016_CRP13_30112016.pdf.

[23] Id. at 7.

[24] Id. at 8.

[25] World Health Organization [WHO], Cannabidiol (CBD) Pre-Review Report, at 20, (Nov. 6­–10, 2017), http://www.who.int/medicines/access/controlled-substances/5.2_CBD.pdf?ua=1.

[26] World Health Organization [WHO], Expert Peer Review No. 1, at 2–3, (Nov. 6–10, 2017), http://www.who.int/medicines/access/controlled-substances/5.2_CBD_PeerReview1.pdf?ua=1; World Health Organization [WHO], Expert Peer Review No. 2, at 3, (Nov. 6–10, 2017), http://www.who.int/medicines/access/controlled-substances/5.2_CBD_PeerReview2.pdf?ua=1.

[27]Expert Comm. on Drug Dependence, supra, note 20, at 14.