The Uruguayan senators taught me how to say “smoke a joint”

I’m living in a country of chill people who occasionally like to enjoy pot. But it turns out that weed is not central to Uruguayan culture.

Six days into my internship in Uruguay’s Senate, my coworkers in the Uruguayan Senate taught me how to say ‘smoke a joint’ (‘fumate un porro’). Chill.

Small yet bold, Uruguay, the tiny South American country south of Brasil, became the first country in the world to legalize the growth and sale of marijuana in 2013, prompting a push for alternative drug policies in countries throughout Latin America. Starting this month, June 2016, Uruguayan pharmacies will start selling weed — providing a third option to home growing and the larger “cannabis clubs.”

I expected to see (and smell) a lot of weed when I got here. But that’s just not the case. When I walk to class, I almost always get stuck behind someone smoking a cigarette, and almost never marijuana. I smelled a lot more weed growing up in Humboldt County than I do here. What I have noticed is that people smoke weed without worry in the plaza or the street, and grow shops that reek of weed are prevalent. (There’s one about three blocks from my house called Urugrow.) As someone who smokes only occasionally, I’m far from an expert on the subject. But it seems to me that weed isn’t central to youth culture, and that legalization hasn’t incentivized smoking. The stereotype of Uruguay as a country of stoners has been largely invalidated.

Most of what I’ve learned about the seed business and the cannabis “Clubs” has come from one of my good friends here, Luchu, a teammate whose boyfriend owns a club. Once we all smoked Luchu’s weed before a game, which I thought had been suspended due to rain.

Ever since Uruguay passed its innovative cannabis law, the country has been internationally lauded as a beacon of progressive ideals. In 2013, Uruguay was named the Economist magazine’s first “country of the year” in recognition of the government’s “path-breaking” reforms. Current president Tabaré Vázquez, an oncologist by profession, has also been internationally recognized for his comprehensive anti-smoking legislation and fight against multinational tobacco company Philip Morris.

So, why is Uruguay so progressive?

As mentioned in a previous post, historical reasons date back to early 1900s with two presidencies of José Batlle y Ordóñez. At that time, around 1907, the country was pioneering with the women’s vote, divorce rights for women, complete separation of church and state, and free public school. As a point of comparison, Chile didn’t grant women full divorce rights until 2004, almost 100 years after Uruguay. My host dad has several stories about Argentinians coming to Uruguay solely to get a divorce.

Former President Mujica’s progressive reforms and his public image in the world media also give the country its progressive image. Notably, however, Mujica’s image was much more popular abroad than it was at home.

Being a small country between two big countries, however, also has economic downsides. But Uruguay’s small size has made its cannabis experiment, as well as the decriminalization of abortion and legalization of same-sex marriage, possible.

The international media hype surrounding the marijuana law has inevitably linked Uruguay with weed. But just because Uruguayans have figured out a sensible way to regulate weed does not mean that the herb is central to Uruguayan culture. (If you think that, you’ve got the wrong herb.) Making weed legal fits the laid-back culture, but it does not create it.