Lying on the Eastern seaboard of South America, just above Buenos Aires, is Uruguay: a small country that’s recently been big news. Towards the end of last year, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to legalize the use, growth and sale of marijuana. Starting in spring 2014, all Uruguayans over the age of 18 will be legally allowed to purchase up to 40 grams of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
President of Uruguay President Jose Mujica has said that legalizing cannabis will mean a better regulated drug market, and one that is not controlled by drug cartels. Legalization supporters argue that fewer illegal drug dealers will lead to fewer hard drugs. Critics of the new law, however, point out the risks of marijuana and have chastised Mujica for performing a dangerous health experiment upon the populace of Uruguay. Most notably, the United Nations’ independent International Narcotics Control Board has warned Uruguay that to legalize marijuana would mean violating international narcotics treaties which the country has already signed.
Narcotics laws were created to protect global health and safety, and although marijuana legislation in many places has relaxed during the past decade (in the United States, both Colorado and Washington have completely legalized the drug, and in other states as well as countries such as Britain and Spain, marijuana is legal for medical purposes), the health risks of cannabis use are still recognized by most major medical bodies. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that marijuana use can lead to short term memory loss, learning problems, motor impairment and difficulty paying attention to one task. Long term users, according to WHO, may experience dependence, impairments in daily functioning and even schizophrenia.
Although the World Health Organization qualifies that final warning by saying that marijuana may exacerbate rather than cause schizophrenia, plenty of medical researchers have seen a link between marijuana and mental illness. A 2002 study in the British Medical Journal saw that within its study group, teenagers who used marijuana once per week or more were twice as likely to experience depression or anxiety later on, especially when those teens were girls. In 2010, research from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research indicated that marijuana use can lead to earlier onset of schizophrenia and a worsening of symptoms, while other evidence shows that marijuana can cause psychosis in patients with no predispositions toward the disease.
Of course, marijuana can be harmful to not only mental health but physical health as well. Smoking cannabis over a number of years will affect the throat and lungs, leading to inflammation and a greater risk of bronchial infection. Cannabis can also affect the physical health of a fetus: if a woman uses marijuana while pregnant, the fetus will likely experience developmental impairment and a low birth rate.
With all of these massive health risks, why would any nation even consider legalizing marijuana? Firstly, plenty of dangerous drugs are already on the regulated, legal market: alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine for example. The World Health Organization reports that tobacco kills nearly 6 million people per year, but WHO cannot say how many people die as a direct result of cannabis. Similarly, alcohol has many of the same adverse effects as cannabis (impairing mental and physical function, leading to addiction and long term damage to the brain and body), and yet beers, wine and spirits are legal in nearly every country around the world.
Those in favor of cannabis legalization also point out the potential health benefits of the drug. Compounds in marijuana known as cannabinoids have been shown to reduce nausea and vomiting, making medical marijuana a popular option for sufferers of advanced cancer and AIDS. In the United States, the prescription drug Dronabinol offers patients a medication that acts like cannabis but is legal to use. At legal medical marijuana distribution clubs, buyers can receive the drug to help with physical maladies such as back pain and migraines, and cannabis has been shown to provide relief to some glaucoma patients by reducing ocular pressure.
Other studies have found that rather than increasing the risk of mental illness, marijuana can actually reduce its symptoms. Medical researchers have for many years been exploring the link between cannabis use and the treatment of Tourette’s syndrome, with many recreational users reporting a reduction in tics with consumption of marijuana. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has collected a large amount of data supporting this thesis, although in a recent New York Times feature, Yale School of Medicine Doctors Robert A. King and James F. Leckman said that for adolescents at least, marijuana is still more likely to harm than help mental and developmental health.
In a country like Uruguay, drugs and health care are inextricably linked to crime. Many Uruguayans are in favor of legalization in hopes that bringing marijuana trade into the open will reduce crime and therefore improve their nation’s health and safety. Julio Calzada, head of Uruguay’s National Drug Agency, told the BBC that more than 80 people died in 2012 as a result of drug violence. Although the drug crime in Uruguay is not as lethal as that in other South American countries such as Brazil and Columbia, some officials think that taking action now and bringing government regulation to the drug trade might lead to happier, healthier, more law-abiding citizens in the future.
Uruguayan president Jose Mujica has referred to his nation’s cannabis legalization as an “experiment” – to see if legally regulating marijuana can reduce drug trafficking and keep users away from more dangerous and more addictive drugs. It’s an experiment that people around the world will both laud and criticize, but in the end, it’s up to Uruguay alone to determine if marijuana will lead to better national health and safety, or not.