Uruguay edged closer toward legalizing the recreational use of marijuana Wednesday after the country’s lower house approved a sweeping measure that would allow the government to regulate the production and distribution of the drug — a move that would make Uruguay the first country in the world to create a legal marijuana market.
All 50 members of the ruling Broad Front coalition approved the proposal in a party line vote just before midnight. The measure now moves to the Senate, which is expected to approve legalization later this month and hand President Jose Mujica a landmark victory in his effort to explore alternatives to the global war on drugs.
“In a regional context, the Uruguay vote echoes calls from presidents calling for a change in drug policy,” said Hannah Hetzer, a Latin America coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance who lives in Uruguay. “The measure is an effort to put a halt on what Uruguayans see as a wave of crime related with illicit drug markets.”
The measure, aimed in part at redirecting police resources toward fighting street crime, would allow people to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes and marijuana cooperatives to cultivate up to 99 plants, a model widely used in Spain. The bill would also allow private companies to grow marijuana, which would be sold in licensed pharmacies.
To avoid making the country a marijuana-tourist destination, only Uruguayans would be allowed to purchase and use the drug under the measure, which caps monthly purchases at 40 grams per individual. The measure would adjust a contradiction in Uruguayan law, where marijuana use is decriminalized but production, distribution and sale are illegal.
The Uruguay initiative highlights a growing movement in Latin American, where a chorus of former and sitting presidents are calling for a global re-think on the war on drugs, a prohibitionist model established by the United States 40 years ago, when Richard Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration. That model, critics say, has immersed the region in drug-related violence and done little to curtail drug trafficking and consumption.
In 2009, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico urged President Obama to consider new policies in the drug war that would treat drug use as a public-health problem. Last year, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina proposed drug legalization in front of the U.N. General Assembly, a call that was supported by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who also called for a global debate on the issue.
In May, the Organization of American States released a report calling on global leaders to reexamine the war on drugs, including marijuana legalization as a policy alternative. The organization also examined four alternative strategies, including the war’s abandonment.
A small nation of 3.3 million people, Uruguay has an estimated 120,000 marijuana users, with 18,000 consuming the drug daily, according to figures from the country’s National Drug Council. By regulating the drug, the government hopes to tap into Uruguay’s demand for marijuana on the black market, which generates an estimated $40 million annually.
The government plans to direct tax revenues from the drug’s production and sale toward rehabilitation and drug-education programs. But politicians must keep from placing too high a tax on marijuana, analysts say. Otherwise, Uruguayans will be enticed to seek out cheaper alternatives on the black market, 80 percent of which come from Paraguay.
Nonetheless, marijuana legalization has been a tough sell in Uruguay. In a poll taken in December of 2012, 64 percent of Uruguayans opposed legalization. President Mujica originally conditioned marijuana legalization on popular approval for the bill.
When that support failed to materialize, Mujica suspended a vote on the measure for six months and launched an educational campaign underscoring the benefits of marijuana’s medical applications and buying a home-grown product instead of inferior, black-market alternatives from neighboring countries.
The bill was then updated so that the state would not have a direct role in marijuana cultivation or sales. Instead, it would regulate private firms entrusted with the drug’s cultivation and then sell harvests to licensed pharmacies.
Several Latin American countries have recently decriminalized the personal possession of marijuana in an effort to stem the violence and prison overcrowding associated with drug use. In Mexico, the left-wing PRD party is drafting a national marijuana-legalization bill. And congressmen in Chile, which recently decriminalized marijuana consumption, have met with Uruguayan counterparts to examine how their law would be applied.
“Uruguay’s measure is important on a global scale,” said Hetzer of the Drug Policy Alliance. “This will be important for the region as a potential model to follow.”