A man served time in prison for growing weed. But what he learned there helped to make history.

This isn't just a story about weed.

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Juan Vaz and his wife were watching a movie with their kids one evening when an eight-man SWAT team kicked in their door and raided their home.

Uruguayan authorities found out Vaz was growing cannabis in his home. According to Vaz, the judge hearing his case said he was "worse than a drug dealer" and sentenced him to two years and four months in prison.


Juan Vaz stands before the prison near Montevideo where he spent the first six months of his prison term.

Vaz was only growing cannabis for personal use, but it was still against the law, so he had no choice but to do the time.

In prison, he had time to reflect on what was important to him and what he would do when he was released. Giving up was not an option.

"I'm 40 years old and can deal with this. But if I were 20 years old, what would have happened to me? The next convicted grower could be in his twenties, and his life will get shattered. I believe that's what motivated me to get out of jail with strength, eager to make things better." — Juan Vaz

While he was in prison, Vaz began his plot to change the rule that landed him there.

He studied a combination of botany and law so he could "unravel all that legal slang" that kept a lot of people from grasping what was at stake.

And when he was released, IT WAS TOTALLY ON.

According to Time magazine's Uki Goni, "Vaz emerged determined to see the law changed in Uruguay, and went from being a computer programmer to a near full-time marijuana activist."

The problem with the law, said Vaz, isn't just that it didn't make sense — it's that it made their country even more dangerous:

"In Uruguay, smoking and having a small amount of weed was allowed, but there was no legal way to purchase that amount. Even if buying from a drug dealer wasn't punished, self-growing it had taken me to jail. This was illogical. Because with the amount you were allowed to carry with you, the law itself forced you to buy it from a drug dealer. Then, the law seemed to support drug trafficking."

Vaz and his allies pounded the pavement until change was in sight.

After years of organizing, marching, and educating, they found support in the supreme court, and the legislature finally decided to reconsider the law.

In 2013, the Uruguayan senate met cheers as it passed a bill to legalize and regulate the production, sale, and use of cannabis.

And since then, guess who built the largest cannabis production business in Uruguay — none other than Juan Vaz!

But the story's conclusion doesn't have quite the finality Vaz was expecting from the outset.

"When we started working on legalization, it was like a mountain that we had to climb. And when we finally got to the top, we would hug each other. We would plant the flag and smoke a joint. ...

When we finally got to the top of the mountain with our idea on our backs, we looked down and saw a valley and another mountain, another valley and another mountain, and another valley with another mountain.

And we realized that we need to keep going." — Juan Vaz



The war on drugs has been a violent failure. Maybe it's time we chalk it up to a bad idea and take a step into the future with Uruguay?

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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