Uruguay 1 step closer to legalizing pot

Uruguay's unprecedented plan to put the
government at the centre of a legal
marijuana industry has made it through the
lower chamber of congress, giving President
Jose Mujica a long-sought victory in his effort
to explore alternatives to the global war on
drugs.
All 50 members of the governing Broad Front
coalition approved the proposal in a party
line vote just before midnight Wednesday,
keeping a narrow majority of the 96
lawmakers present after more than 13 hours
of passionate debate.
The measure now goes to the Senate,
where Mujica's coalition has a bigger
majority, and passage is expected to
come within weeks for the proposal
to make Uruguay the world's first
nation to create a legal, regulated
marijuana market.
Under the legislation, Uruguay's
government would license growers,
sellers and consumers, and update a
confidential registry to keep people
from buying more than 40 grams a
month.
Carrying, growing or selling pot
without a license could bring prison terms,
but licensed consumers could grow up to six
plants at a time at home.
Growing clubs with up to 45 members each
would be encouraged, fostering enough
marijuana production to drive out unlicensed
dealers and draw a line between pot smokers
and users of harder drugs.
"Sometimes small countries do great things,"
said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of
the U.S. Drug Policy Alliance. "Uruguay's bold
move does more than follow in the footsteps
of Colorado and Washington . It provides a
model for legally regulating marijuana that
other countries, and U.S. states, will want to
consider — and a precedent that will
embolden others to follow in their
footsteps."
Legalization gaining ground in
Americas
Marijuana legalization efforts have gained
momentum across the Americas in recent
years as leaders watch the death toll rise
from military responses to unabated drug
trafficking in Mexico and Central America.
Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia
and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala also
have called for reforms, and a recent report
by a commission of the Organization of
American States encouraged new approaches,
including legalization of marijuana.
But no sitting president has gone as far as
Mujica to support the creation of legal
alternatives to marijuana trafficking.
"At the heart of the Uruguayan marijuana
regulation bill is a focus on improving public
health and public safety," said Hannah
Hetzer, a Drug Policy Alliance staffer who
moved to Montevideo to help shepherd the
proposal.
"Instead of closing their eyes to the problem
of drug abuse and drug trafficking, Uruguay
is taking an important step towards
responsible regulation of an existing reality."
Pot already legal to consume
Legislators in the governing coalition said
putting the government at the centre of a
legal marijuana industry is worth trying
because the global war on drugs had been a
costly and bloody failure, and displacing
illegal dealers through licensed pot sales
could save money and lives.
They also hope to eliminate a
legal contradiction in Uruguay,
where it has been legal to use
pot but against the law to sell
it, buy it, produce it or possess
even one marijuana plant.
Critics warned that marijuana
opens the way for other drugs
and said fostering the bad
habits of addicts is playing
with fire.
Mujica said he never consumed
marijuana but believes
regulations are necessary
because many other people do,
even though recent polls
suggest two-thirds of
Uruguayans oppose the plan.
National Party Deputy Gerardo Amarilla said
the government was underestimating the risk
of marijuana, which he called a "gateway
drug" for other chemical addictions that
foster violent crimes.
"Ninety-eight percent of those who are today
destroying themselves with base cocaine
began with marijuana," Amarilla said. "I
believe that we're risking too much. I have
the sensation that we're playing with fire."
Marijuana to be available in
pharmacies
The latest proposal "has some adjustments,
aimed at strengthening the educational issue
and prohibiting driving under the effects of
cannabis," ruling coalition deputy Sebastian
Sabini said. "There will be self-growing
clubs, and it will also be possible to buy
marijuana in pharmacies" that is mass-
produced by private companies.
An Institute for Regulation and Control of
Cannabis would be created, with the power
to grant licenses for all aspects of a legal
industry to produce marijuana for
recreational, medicinal or industrial use.
Dozens of pro-marijuana activists followed
the debate from balconies overlooking the
house floor, while others outside held signs
and danced to reggae music.
"This law consecrates a reality that already
exists," said Camilo Collazo, a 25-year-old
anthropology student. "The marijuana sales
market has existed for a long time, but
illegally, buying it from traffickers, and in
having plants in your house for which you
can be thrown in jail. We want to put an end
to this, to clean up and normalize the
situation."
The heavy toll, costs and questionable results
of military responses to illegal drugs have
motivated marijuana legalization initiatives in
the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington
and inspired many world leaders to rethink
drug laws.
The secretary-general of the Organization of
American States, Jose Miguel Inzulza, told
Mujica last week that his members had no
objections. Pope Francis, however, said
during his visit to Brazil that the
"liberalization of drugs, which is being
discussed in several Latin American countries,
is not what will reduce the spread of
chemical substances."