Uruguay becomes first country to legalize marijuana trade

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.
A government-sponsored bill approved
by 16-13 votes in the Senate provides
for regulation of the cultivation,
distribution and consumption of
marijuana and is aimed at wresting the
business from criminals in the small
South American nation.
Backers of the law, some smoking
joints, gathered near Congress holding
green balloons, Jamaican flags in
homage to Bob Marley and a sign
saying: "Cultivating freedom, Uruguay
grows."
Cannabis consumers will be able to buy
a maximum of 40 grams (1.4 ounces)
each month from licensed pharmacies
as long as they are Uruguayan residents
over the age of 18 and registered on a
government database that will monitor
their monthly purchases.
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 480 grams (about
17 ounces), 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.
"We begin a new experience in April. It
involves a big cultural change that
focuses on public health and the fight
against drug trafficking," Uruguay's
first lady, Senator Lucía Topolansky,
told Reuters.
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.
Rich countries debating legalization of
pot are also watching the bill, which
philanthropist George Soros has
supported as an "experiment" that
could provide an alternative to the
failed U.S.-led policies of the long "war
on drugs."
The bill gives authorities 120 days to
set up a drug control board that will
regulate cultivation standards, fix the
price and monitor consumption.
The use of marijuana is legal in
Uruguay, a country of 3.3 million that
is one of the most liberal in Latin
America, but cultivation and sale of the
drug are not.
Other countries have decriminalized
marijuana possession and the
Netherlands allows its sale in coffee
shops, but Uruguay will be the first
nation to legalize the whole chain from
growing the plant to buying and selling
its leaves.
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 U.S. states of Colorado
and Washington passed ballot
initiatives that legalize and regulate the
recreational use of marijuana.
Uruguay's leftist president, Jose Mujica,
defends his initiative as a bid to
regulate and tax a market that already
exists but is run by criminals.
"We've given this market as a gift to
the drug traffickers and that is more
destructive socially than the drug itself,
because it rots the whole of society,"
the 78-year-old former guerrilla fighter
told Argentine news agency Telam.
Not all convinced
Uruguay is one of the safest Latin
American countries with little of the
drug violence or other violence seen in
countries such as Colombia and
Mexico.
Yet one-third of Uruguay's prison
inmates are serving time on charges
related to narcotics trafficking that has
turned Uruguay into a transit route for
Paraguayan marijuana and Bolivian
cocaine.
Even though it is set to clear the
Senate, the legislation faces fierce
opposition from conservatives and
Mujica has yet to convince a majority
of Uruguayans that it is a good idea.
According to a recent opinion poll by
Equipos Consultores, 58 percent of
Uruguayans oppose legalizing pot,
although that is down from 68 percent
in a previous survey in June.
Critics say legalization will not only
increase consumption but open the
door to the use of harder drugs than
marijuana, which according to
government statistics is used by 8
percent of Uruguayans on a regular
basis.
"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.
If it works, the legislation is expected
to fuel momentum for wider
legalization of marijuana elsewhere,
including the United States and in
Europe. Decriminalization of all drug
possession by Portugal in 2001 is held
up as a success for reducing drug
violence while not increasing drug
use.
"This development in Uruguay is of
historic significance," said Ethan
Nadelmann, founder of the Drug
Policy Alliance, a leading sponsor of
drug policy reform partially funded by
Soros through his Open Society
Foundation.
"Uruguay is presenting an innovative
model for cannabis that will better
protect public health and public safety
than does the prohibitionist
approach," Nadelmann said.