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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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