Global trendsetter? Uruguay moves to legalize marijuana.

Marijuana legalization: Uruguay's lower house of parliament set a global first last night by voting to give the state control of marijuana production, distribution, and sales. 

Matilde Campodonico/AP
Lawmakers debate a bill that would legalize marijuana and regulate production and distribution in Montevideo, Uruguay, Wednesday, July 31, 2013.

Uruguay has effectively sealed the passage of a groundbreaking marijuana legalization bill that puts production, distribution, and sale of the drug in the hands of the state, making it the first country ever to do so.

After a 13-hour debate, politicians in the lower house of parliament voted late last night in favor of the controversial initiative, which is similar to laws approved last year in Colorado and Washington State. The upper house is expected to follow suit.

The bill has drawn criticism from the United Nations, which supports interdiction. And speaking just days ago in neighboring Brazil, Pope Francis warned against the “liberalization of drugs.”

But analysts believe that the decision made by lawmakers in the small Southern Cone nation could mark the beginning of the end for conservative drug policies worldwide.

“Uruguay is leading the charge with this sophisticated approach,” says John Walsh, a drug-policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based organization that promotes human rights. In a note to journalists, Mr. Walsh also said Uruguay – whose population is just 3.4 million – was heading a “compelling alternative to the prohibitionist paradigm.”

The details

The legalization bill, backed by President José Mujica, has been framed as a move to tackle narcotics-related crime, decrease health risks for consumers, and separate the marijuana and hard-drug markets.

The state will license and regulate private cannabis farms and then sell the marijuana at pharmacies. There will be a monthly limit of 40 grams per person and all consumers will have to register.

Giving the state control of production is “unprecedented,” says Beau Kilmer, a director at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center in California. “Not even the Netherlands [where cannabis is, in effect, decriminalized] allows large-scale marijuana production for the non-medical market,” Mr. Kilmer says.

Incorporating parts of another bill, Uruguay will also legalize home cultivation – with a maximum of six plants per household – and so-called cannabis clubs, thus institutionalizing a model used in the Basque Country, an autonomous territory in northern Spain. Clubs with as many as 45 people will be allowed to grow marijuana, distributing it among members only.

The Broad Front, the ruling left-wing coalition, has just 50 of the 99 seats in the lower house and was made to sweat on the bill’s approval: One of its deputies had voiced his doubts and committed to a positive vote only yesterday evening.

The upper house, in which the Broad Front has a comfortable majority, is expected to finalize the legislation’s passage in the coming months.

Bill is 'barbaric'

Opposition politicians branded the bill “barbaric” yesterday. They complained it will encourage addiction and does not have the support of Uruguayans: A recent poll estimated two-thirds of people do not support the initiative.

Julio Bango, a Broad Front deputy, admitted the law will not solve all cannabis-related problems, but said: “Each time a person moves from the black market to the regulated market, it’ll be a small victory.”

Meanwhile, the 40-gram limit and registry for users – controls not included in the Colorado and Washington State laws – have been labeled Orwellian by some marijuana legalization activists. But proponents of the bill say they are necessary steps to ensure supply does not significantly exceed demand, and so avoid contraband to neighboring countries.

Accompanying the liberal laws in Colorado and Washington, attitudes toward drug policy in Latin America have changed significantly in recent years: Mexico City is currently contemplating the legalization of cannabis, and lawmakers in conservative Chile introduced a bill to legalize the drug last year.

“The trend is becoming irreversible,” argues Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute, a think tank in Amsterdam. “The era of globally enforced marijuana prohibition … is drawing to a close.”

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