"There is no reason to consume marijuana, it simply must not be consumed," Vázquez said at a student gathering in the city of Colonia last year. Vázquez is a doctor with a specialization in oncology. He has said that there are medical studies that suggest that marijuana can lead to lung cancer. At the same time, however, some scientific studies suggest that marijuana can actually be used to treat the disease.
Either way, Vázquez has said that he will not back marijuana legalization if he were once again president of Uruguay. "First you have to prove that legalizing drug consumption works," he said at the student gathering.
Uruguay is not the only country in Latin America where marijuana legalization is opposed by a wide margin. A survey conducted in 2012, by the Mexican firm Parametria, suggests that 79 percent of Mexicans oppose plans to legalize pot. The global polling firm IPSOS conducted an international survey on marijuana legalization last year, and found no country in Latin America where the majority of residents wanted to legalize pot.
Argentina, which has been on the forefront of liberal issues like legalizing gay marriage, was one of the most pot-friendly countries in the IPSOS survey, but only 27 percent of Argentines who answered the IPSOS poll said that they agreed with legalizing pot.
Yet despite such local and international opposition, Uruguayan officials say they will push ahead with legalization. Julio Calzada, the secretary general of Uruguay's National Committee on drugs, reckons that the marijuana law will be voted on during the first half of this year, once the Uruguayan parliament reconvenes in March.
"Someone has to take the first step," Calzada said, "because we remain in a debate where it's said [legalization] is necessary, but that it has to be global, and it's very difficult to construct global consensus, there are a lot of interests and a lot of pressures."
Julio Calzada backs legalization. He leads Uruguay's National Comittee on Drugs. (Photo: Patricio Guillamon)
Arguing in favor of legalization, Calzada spoke about the war against drug cartels in Mexico, which has claimed an estimated 60,000 lives in the past six years.
He also mentioned recent efforts by the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, as well as the current president of Guatemala, to start an international debate on drug legalization policies. These politicians argue that if some drugs are legalized cartels will lose business, and earn less money to buy weapons with. They also say that legalization will enable law enforcement agencies to direct more resources towards crimes like kidnappings, homicides and human trafficking.
"There is an ever-growing group of professionals, intellectuals in the world who are begging for drug policy reform on the basis that [prohibition] has given the opposite results it proposed," Calzada said.
"Crime has grown, consumption has grown, arms trafficking has grown, and today there is the conviction many have that in many places the medicine is worse than the disease."
Uruguay is not Mexico. The South American nation has just 3.3 million inhabitants and one of the lowest crime rates in Latin America. But Calzada says that legalization is a pressing need in this country, as organized crime has begun to make inroads in Uruguayan society.
"Criminal groups have begun to dispute space in the market, and begun to kill one another as they try to control territory in different ways," says Calzada. "There is a permanent pressure on the social fabric that tends to destroy it, as has happened in other countries in Latin America."