Diffusion and media

Uruguay’s Law 19172 as a consistent strategy of harm reduction

Raquel Peyraube

Date/Year: 2018

Media: Monitor Cannabis Uruguay

Keywords: drug policy, regulation, harm reduction

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What is Harm Reduction?


We can say that drug policies are based on three pillars: Supply Reduction (SR), Demand Reduction (DR) and Harm Reduction (HR). A comprehensive and coherent drug policy should rationally couple these three types of strategies, since each has different objectives and contexts of application, which makes them complementary and not exclusive.

Apart from being a policy in itself, harm reduction in particular is a broader framework to approach the consumption of licit and illicit drugs, and the problem of drugs in general. It offers an approach that reflects the ethics of public health: first, doing no   harm and doing good, promoting social justice and guaranteeing the right to self-determination. It is not a new or alternative approach: medicine and public health policies abound in application examples.

In addition to the fact that the Cannabis Regulation Law includes articles that mandate implementation of harm reduction measures, if the objectives and contents of Law 19172 are analyzed, it is evident that the law itself is a consistent measure of harm reduction for cannabis users, but also for consumers of other drugs.


How does Harm Reduction work?

By definition, HR designates socio-health and political strategies aimed at reducing the negative impact of drugs while the person continues to consume the substance(s). Thus, they are aimed at reducing three types of damages: those of the effects of drugs, those of the modalities of drug use, and those of the political and social response to the problem of drugs.

Some of the best-known and successful examples are the exchange of syringes for intravenous drug users, the distribution of suitable pipes for smokable drugs, the distribution of condoms, drug substitution programs (for example, methadone for heroin users), street work to address socio-health emergencies and educate about responsible drug use practices, and reception centers with minimum requirements (anonymity, no requirement of documents or abstinence).

But HR practices and programs are also applied to legal drugs, such as alcohol-free driving programs or smoke-free spaces.


What would be the harms that the Cannabis Law and its regimentation allow to reduce?

Among the most important are the health, social and political harms, since the law:

  1. establishes a maximum concentration of THC (15%), the most important and potent psychoactive component of the plant and the main responsible for dependence;
  2. makes it mandatory to control the quality of the products that are commercialized for all human uses –adult, medicinal and nutritional uses;
  3. obliges to educate about the risks and harms (psychophysical and social health), considering the effects of the substance itself and the modalities of use;
  4. regarding problematic drug use, it promotes early consultation by giving educational elements in prevention and HR strategies mandated by the law;
  5. separates the cannabis market from other more dangerous drugs in order to reduce the initiation in consumption of the latter;
  6. controls the conditions and spaces were the use of cannabis is allowed: exclusion zones for schools and health centers, application of the same regulation as for tobacco when it is smoked, prohibition of use for drivers and at the workplace;
  7. legalizes the preparatory act of consumption (production, purchase, etc.), thereby reducing the stigma and consequent social harm to people who use cannabis, the substance that represents 80% of the Uruguayan drug market;
  8. reduces the contact of people who use cannabis with crime;
  9. decreases police and political corruption related to the market for this substance.

To sum up, Law 19172 is an example of how the legalization of drugs is not only a market regulation, but also a harm reduction strategy. The contents of the law demonstrate that a good model for a comprehensive cannabis regulation based on security, public health and human rights is a powerful tool to improve the quality of life of people who use drugs, while reducing social, political, and environmental damages.