Lawmakers in Uruguay Vote to Legalize Marijuana

Lawmakers in Uruguay Vote to Legalize Marijuana

Published on 8/4/13

RIO DE JANEIRO — Uruguay’s lower house late Wednesday night approved a sweeping bill to legalize marijuana, opening the way for the authorities to create one of Latin America’s most ambitious nationwide endeavors in overhauling drug policy.

Following hours of debate, legislators in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, voted 50 to 46 in favor of the legislation, which now goes to the Senate, where lawmakers have assured President José Mujica that they have a comfortable majority to approve it. Mr. Mujica supports the bill, arguing that it is needed to redirect police resources toward fighting street crime and smugglers involved in trafficking other types of drugs.

“This is a very innovative bill, with the state deciding to regulate the entire chain of production, distribution and access to the substance,” said Laura Blanco, president of Uruguay’s Cannabis Studies Association. She said the bill sent an “encouraging” sign to other Latin American nations, as political leaders in parts of the region debate whether to follow Uruguay’s example.

Under Mr. Mujica, 78, an outspoken former guerrilla, Uruguay has emerged as a laboratory for socially liberal policies. A small nation of 3.3 million people, the country has also enacted a groundbreaking abortion rights law, moved to legalize same-sex marriage and is seeking to become a center for renewable energy ventures.

The marijuana bill has been under consideration for more than a year, with Mr. Mujica urging legislators last year to postpone voting on it after polls showed a majority of Uruguayans were opposed.

A majority in Uruguay is still thought to be against the legalization, but lawmakers moved ahead with the vote after nonprofit groups banded together in an educational campaign to explain the medicinal uses of marijuana and the economic benefits of cultivating the plant in Uruguay, where criminal networks now smuggle marijuana largely from Paraguay.

Under the bill, which could become law as early as this month, people would be allowed to grow marijuana in their homes, limited to six plants per household. They would also be permitted to form cooperatives allowed to cultivate 99 plants. In addition, private companies could grow marijuana under the bill, though their harvests could be bought only by the government, which would market the drug in licensed pharmacies.

To buy marijuana in pharmacies, Uruguayans would be required to enter their names into a federal registry, which is intended to remain confidential, and would be limited to buying 40 grams per month. And in a move to prevent foreign tourists from flocking to Uruguay to smoke marijuana, the legislation would restrict legal purchases to Uruguayans. Marijuana use is already largely tolerated by the Uruguayan authorities.

Some people in Uruguay remain opposed to the bill, contending that it would increase marijuana use among the young. “This is an adventure which may end up endangering an entire generation,” said Gerardo Amarilla, an opposition legislator with Uruguay’s National Party.

But in Latin America and beyond, supporters of relaxing drug laws say the Uruguayan measure, along with similar legislation in parts of the United States, could embolden efforts to legalize marijuana in other countries.

“This vote is destined to have a big impact, with regional and even global repercussions for drug policy,” said John Walsh, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. “Uruguay’s timing is right. Because of last year’s Colorado and Washington State votes to legalize, the U.S. government is in no position to browbeat Uruguay or others who may follow.”

Legislators in the governing coalition, the Broad Front, have argued that the legislation forms part of a tradition in Uruguay of asserting state control over certain areas of the economy and searching for progressive solutions to social problems. “This bill doesn’t promote consumption,” said Sebastián Sabini, the legislator sponsoring the bill. “It regulates it.”

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