Uruguay became the first country to legalize the growing, sale and smoking of marijuana on Tuesday, a pioneering social experiment that will be closely watched by other nations debating drug liberalization. The bill passed the lower house of Congress in August and was assured of approval because the ruling coalition controls both chambers.
Under the legislation, approved by a vote of 16 to 13, Uruguay would create a state-run Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis to oversee the planting, harvesting and sale of marijuana. The drug would be sold at pharmacies, with buyers signing up in a state registry, a process enabling them to purchase up to 40 grams a month at $1 a gram.
When the law is implemented in 120 days, Uruguayans will be able to grow six marijuana plants in their homes a year, or as much as 480g (approx 17oz), and form smoking clubs of 15 to 45 members that can grow up to 99 plants per year.
Registered drug users should be able to start buying marijuana over the counter from licensed pharmacies in April.
The law is an initiative of President Jose Mujica, a 78-year-old former leftist guerrilla who acknowledges the approach is an experiment, says he personally hates pot and has never smoked it.
“We are convinced that we can apply our own policy to drugs in compliance with international norms,” said Roberto Conde, a senator in Uruguay’s governing Broad Front coalition.
Two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose a government-run marijuana industry, according to opinion polls. But Mujica said he’s convinced the global drug war is a failure and feels bureaucrats can do a better job of containing addictions and beating organized crime than police, soldiers and prison guards.
“Today is an historic day. Many countries of Latin America, and many governments, will take this law as an example,” cheered Sen. Constanza Moreira, voting with the Broad Front majority.
The opposition member Alfredo Solari said Uruguay should not “experiment” on its people.
“This project envisages a social engineering experiment and respects none of the ethic safeguards of experimentation on human beings, and these are important in the case of a substance like marijuana, which causes damage to human beings,” said Senator Solari.
Uruguay’s attempt to quell drug trafficking is being followed closely in Latin America where the legalization of some narcotics is being increasingly seen by regional leaders as a possible way to end the violence spawned by the cocaine trade, says Reuters.
Several countries such as Canada, the Netherlands and Israel have legal programs for growing medical cannabis but do not allow cultivation of marijuana for recreational use.
Last year, the US states of Colorado and Washington passed ballot initiatives that legalize and regulate the recreational use of marijuana. The move has faced fierce opposition from conservatives and, according to a recent opinion poll, 58% of Uruguayans oppose legalizing cannabis.
“Competing with drug traffickers by offering marijuana at a lower price will just increase the market for a drug that has negative effects on public health,” said Senator Alfredo Solari of the conservative Colorado Party.