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Uruguay takes 'war on drugs' in new direction: The state as dealer

The South American country is proposing a state monopoly over marijuana in part to curtail drug-related violence. But it's getting pushback – even from those in favor of legalization.

By Correspondent / September 19, 2012

Marijuana grower and activist Juan Vaz checks a Marijuana plants in Montevideo, August 9. Uruguay's government has sent a bill to Congress that would allow the state to grow and sell marijuana, a move that President Jose Mujica says will cut crime associated with illegal drug trafficking.

Andres Stapff/Reuters

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Montevideo, Uruguay

Uruguay has long been at the vanguard of social reform in Latin America. Today, it is on the verge of passing into law one of its most radical ideas yet.

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The Broad Front – the center-left coalition that holds power – is proposing a state monopoly over the production and distribution of marijuana, making Uruguay the first national government to sell cannabis directly to citizens. The government says the measure is necessary to combat rising drug-related crime, decrease health risks for users, and counter ineffective US policies on drugs. But within Uruguay, interest groups have labeled the legislation totalitarian, while some international bodies argue it breaches global conventions.

“We’re putting this forward as international policy,” says Sebastian Sabini, president of the parliamentary commission created to debate the bill. “The war on drugs has failed. There are more consumers and more violence.”

“Uruguay is opening up a new path,” he says.

Pushing the envelope

Uruguay is often overshadowed by the far larger economies of its neighbors Brazil and Argentina. But the country has made a name for itself with a long history of pushing the envelope on social issues.

In 1918, Uruguay became one of the first countries in the region to officially separate the state from the Roman Catholic Church. It implemented South America’s oldest mandatory pension system in 1896, and a bill to decriminalize abortion is expected to pass later this year.

But the bill proposing the legalization of marijuana has been denounced by the United Nations for breaching its 1961 convention on narcotics, and Uruguayans are also skeptical: Polls say just 40 percent approve.

“We’ll end up with people who don’t use marijuana buying it to sell on and make a quick buck,” says Hugo Lacasa, a street trader in Montevideo.

In early September, a parliamentary commission began a six-month debate to refine the bill, which will next be voted on in Congress. The Broad Front has a majority in both houses, but given the audacity of the proposal, President Jose Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla, has said it must have a minimum of 60 percent approval by lawmakers. Usually, just a 51 percent simple majority is required.

'Tackling' black market

The government introduced the bill in part because of “the failure of the global ‘war on drugs,’ ” according to the text of the proposed law. It also believes that by separating the marijuana and hard drug markets, less people will become addicted to the latter – especially "paco," a cocaine-based paste.

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