The Uruguayan lower house of parliament passed a bill that would create the world’s first legal, regulated marijuana markets Wednesday night. The bill passed on a vote of 50-46 after nearly 12 hours of debate.
“Sometimes small countries do great things,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). “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 US states, will want to consider — and a precedent that will embolden others to follow in their footsteps.”
Under the bill, the Uruguayan government would license producers, sellers, and consumers. Smokers would be limited to buying 40 grams a month. Unlicensed possession, cultivation, or sales would be criminal offenses, including prison time in some cases.
Registered users would be able to grow up to six plants, join a marijuana-growing collective, or purchase marijuana at a dispensary or pharmacy.
President Jose Mujica has been pushing the bill as a means of attacking black markets and organized crime by creating a legal, licensed marijuana marketplace. He first unveiled it nearly a year ago, but postponed voting at year’s end to try to rally public support. A “Responsible Regulation” campaign including TV ads tried to sway the public in recent weeks, to little effect, and public opinion remained opposed to the measure.
But Mujica’s Broad Front (Frente Amplio) coalition held a narrow 50-49 edge in the lower house, and parliamentary discipline prevailed. The bill will go before the upper house later this year. The Broad Front holds a bigger majority there, meaning the bill should pass if discipline continues to hold.
“At the heart of the Uruguayan marijuana regulation bill is a focus on improving public health and public safety,” said Hannah Hetzer, who is based out of Montevideo, Uruguay, as DPA’s Policy Manager of the Americas. “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. By approving this measure, Uruguay will take the broad regional discussion on alternatives to drug prohibition one step further. It will represent a concrete advance in line with growing anti-drug war rhetoric in Latin America,” she said.
According to accounts from the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, the debate Wednesday featured sign-waving crowds dancing to reggae music outside the Congress building and dozens of legalization supporters filling the galleries.
“The regulation is not meant to promote consumption, consumption already exists,” lawmaker Sebastian Sabini, who helped draft the legislation, said at the beginning of the session.
The black market in marijuana “finances organized crime” and “marijuana use has doubled in the last 10 years,” pro-legalization lawmakers added.
Opposition lawmakers were unimpressed with the arguments.
“We will not end the black market,” warned National Party lawmaker Gerardo Amarilla. “Ninety-eight per cent of those who are today destroying themselves with base cocaine began with marijuana. I believe that we’re risking too much. I have the sensation that we’re playing with fire.”
Richard Sander of the opposition Colorado Party played an anti-legalization video of ex-addict testimony, adding that the government plan was full of “ad-libbing.”
But the opposition came to nought in the end, and now Uruguay is one step closer to becoming the first country in the world to have a legal, regulated marijuana market.
*Reprinted under CC license from StoptheDrugWar.org.
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Phillip S. Smith has served as writer and editor of the Drug War Chronicle newsletter since May 2000. He has reported from the opium fields of Afghanistan and the coca fields of Bolivia and Peru, as well as the US-Mexico border and the mean streets of North American cities from Vancouver to Washington, DC. In addition to the Drug War Chronicle, he has written on drug policy issues for High Times, Cannabis Culture, various alternative news weeklies, and Internet outlets including Alternet and The Fix.