MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Uruguay’s unprecedented plan to put the government at the center of a legal marijuana industry has made it halfway through congress, giving President Jose Mujica a long-sought victory in his effort to explore alternatives to the global war on drugs.
All 50 members of the governing Broad Front coalition approved the proposal in a party line vote just before midnight Wednesday, keeping a narrow majority of the 96 lawmakers present after more than 13 hours of passionate debate.
The measure now goes to the Senate, where Mujica’s coalition has a bigger majority and passage is expected to come within weeks for the proposal to make Uruguay the world’s first nation to create a legal, regulated marijuana market.
“Sometimes small countries do great things,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S. Drug Policy Alliance. “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 U.S. states, will want to consider – and a precedent that will embolden others to follow in their footsteps.”
Marijuana legalization efforts have gained momentum across the Americas in recent years as leaders watch the death toll rise from military responses to unabated drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America. Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala also have called for reforms, and a recent report by a commission of the Organization of American States encouraged new approaches, including legalization of marijuana.
But no sitting president has gone as far as Mujica to support the creation of legal alternatives to marijuana trafficking.
“At the heart of the Uruguayan marijuana regulation bill is a focus on improving public health and public safety,” said Hannah Hetzer, a Drug Policy Alliance staffer who moved to Montevideo to help shepherd the proposal. “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.”
Legislators in the governing coalition said putting the government at the center of a legal marijuana industry is worth trying because the global war on drugs had been a costly and bloody failure, and displacing illegal dealers through licensed pot sales could save money and lives.
They also hope to eliminate a legal contradiction in Uruguay, where it has been legal to use pot but against the law to sell it, buy it, produce it or possess even one marijuana plant.
Critics warned that marijuana opens the way for other drugs and said fostering the bad habits of addicts is playing with fire.
Mujica said he never consumed marijuana, but believes regulations are necessary because many other people do, even though recent polls suggest two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose the plan.
National Party Deputy Gerardo Amarilla said the government was underestimating the risk of marijuana, which he called a “gateway drug” for other chemical addictions that foster violent crimes.