By / November 29, 2021

Cannabis is Normalized, Spain Must Respond, says Augusto Vitale

Augusto Vitale is convinced that cannabis regulation in Spain is inevitable. And he is not just anyone opining on the subject. Vitale is the former director of Uruguay’s Institute for the Regulation of Cannabis Control (IRCC) and one of the driving forces behind the law that legalized “adult-use” consumption in his country. He knows what he is talking about. “If this debate is shelved [in Spain], time is being lost in a trend that is occurring in societies that are self-critical of their drug policies versus others that are not,” he warns. “Germany is doing it now [alluding to the new German government, which has just agreed to comprehensive legalization], Canada did it. We had to change too,” explains this psychologist by training.

There is good reason to believe his opinion is not too far from the truth, either. A quick glance at news on any given day reveals this. To keep up with it all, download our free cannabis news app.

Learning from Uruguayan Cannabis Experience

Vitale arrived in Madrid last Friday to participate in the presentation sessions of the comprehensive cannabis regulation law that Unidas Podemos has registered in Congress to be held this Monday and to tell about the Uruguayan experience, which was not easy at the beginning but has been settling down. “Public opinion at the time was shocked,” Vitale concedes, “when it [the Uruguayan law, in 2013] was passed there was 20% support, but José Mujica [the former president who promoted the regulation] had an impressive political will and a few years later support has grown to over half of the population,” he explains.

The Uruguayan regulation was made in the spirit “of restriction” and of being able to reach people who were already using cannabis, especially the so-called problematic users, but who had nowhere to turn for help. “Mujica explained it all the time, that this was not done to give access to cannabis to anyone, but to attend to those who were overdoing it” with their use, Vitale recounts. During the conversation, almost regardless of the question, this expert will recurrently return to terms such as “harm reduction” and “access to healthcare”.

Like It or Not, Cannabis Is Now an Everyday Reality

Like it or not, cannabis is a reality. “There is a greater risk when cannabis is on the street or in obscure places, when there is a great deal of normalization or access, than in putting rules on it, that there is a control institute, that those who misuse it are penalized and that actors at the business level also participate,” Vitale reflects. The process in the South American country was not simple. “There was a lot of dialogue with the institutions, with civil society, we held 30 debates in each capital city and in the interior, where parliamentarians were heard for and against,” he recalls.

This process contrasts with the situation in Spain, where despite the fact that there is a subcommittee open that will foreseeably agree to regulate medical cannabis -for recreational use there is still a long way to go because it does not have the essential, according to current parliamentary arthmetic, support of the PSOE- public debate is conspicuous by its absence.

Three Access Paths

The result of the Uruguayan process was a regulatory model focused on the user which, in short, contemplates three access routes with cannabis prices set by the State, and all three require registration with the Government at the risk of falling into illegality. Consumers can opt for self-cultivation, with a maximum of six plants per household, for supplying themselves in clubs, which can have up to 99 plants, and through the sale in pharmacies, a route that enables the user to buy a maximum of 40 grams of cannabis per month. At the moment, access is only allowed for residents of the country, although Vitale explains that at the moment “access for tourists is being studied” after during the first years there were fears of a kind of call effect in the region due to the legalization that did not occur, or at least not at alarming levels.

But the important thing, Vitale stresses, was to reach problematic cannabis users operating on the margins of the system. “Problematic drug use occurs when it is stigmatized and the person feels that they cannot go to solve their problems either to a police officer or to a health center, and a second exclusion or self-exclusion from available services begins,” he expounds. “There was a lot of work with this, we developed many strategies that allowed us not to see these people who use drugs as people to exclude, but to explain.” The problem was tackled from several angles, always with the idea of attracting consumers. “There was a deployment of low-threshold centers, of care, listening and community treatment for problematic drug users, different from health care. This made it possible to link many people to the health services of many people who did not do so before,” he says.

Cannabis No More Problematic than Alcohol

Cannabis is still a drug – just like others that are also legal, such as tobacco or alcohol – that has psychoactive effects and can provoke psychotic outbreaks, especially among young people, he is objected. How does one deal with the fact that the State protects this, especially a psychologist like him?

“Problematic use, in general, does not exceed 10%, although that does not leave aside that each substance has its risks and its possible damages, and cannabis has a proven psychoactive effect and there is a lot to work on the access of minors,” he concedes. “A whole chapter was dedicated to the educational issue. The psychiatric society was among those that most warned that in predisposed people it can generate unwanted effects or generate specific crises, but it also observed that the opportunity to manage what happens when it is regulated was a very good opportunity. One of the organizations most critical of the law valued the opportunity of the debate and of testing an experience of regulation. There is a complexity that needs to be addressed to regulate it properly. It has to be responsible, that is why there is no promotion, this is not a common object of the market”.

And he goes further: “We would even have liked alcohol to be less of a market object, to reduce the accessibility of alcohol and tobacco. I am not a crusader, but if you know that prohibition led to the war on drugs and that this ended up being against the users…”, he criticizes the world drug policy since the UN included cannabis “without any evidence” among the most harmful drugs and without medicinal properties in the 60s.

Another of the aspects sought with the regulation was to reduce the role of drug trafficking, very present in the country and in the region, and “that puts in jeopardy instances of people’s lives with the settling of scores or fights for territory”. “Eighty percent of the illegal market in Uruguay was cannabis,” Vitale explains. With two-thirds of the main consumers “adhering” to the system, the clandestine market has not disappeared, but it has suffered a notable setback by way of offering a quality product, better than the so-called narco pressing, that would convince users. “With the quality of what is offered in the regulated market, there has been a much lower presence of the pressed product, a change of trend has been observed”, he closes, although he admits that drug trafficking does not disappear by intervening only on cannabis while there is a demand for other drugs.


(Featured image by Elsa Olofsson via Unsplash)

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