The Uruguay legislature took a key step toward becoming the first country to legalize marijuana late Wednesday. In a move aimed at curbing violence from the illicit drug market, the country’s lower house passed a bill to legalize the sale, distribution, and production of marijuana. Possession of all drugs is already legal in Uruguay.
The bill will now go before the Senate, where it is expected to pass easily. The proposal would license sellers, distributors, and even individual growers of marijuana. Users could access marijuana in one of three ways: they could grow up to six plants on their own with a license, join a licensed growing cooperative with up to 45 members, or obtain it from a licensed pharmacy. While private companies can grow marijuana, only the government will distribute it through its licensed pharmacies. The bill prohibits sales to minors, driving under the influence, and advertising. Uruguay President José Mujica has been a major force behind the bill, arguing that it will “spoil” the black market by selling it a lot cheaper.
If the proposal becomes law, Uruguay, a small country with a population of 3.3 million, would be the first country to create a legal, regulated marijuana industry. The ballot initiatives passed in Colorado and Washington envision similar systems (albeit with private rather than government-run dispensaries), but these laws hang under the cloud of a federal ban on marijuana. Other countries have loosened criminal punishment on drugs in varying ways. In the Netherlands, for example, marijuana is illegal, but the country has implemented a tolerance policy for small-scale possession and sale via licensed “coffee shops,” while cultivation and supply are unprotected. Portugal abolished criminal penalties for possession of all drugs in 2001, and refers those arrested for addiction assessment. Possession has been decriminalized in several other Latin American countries, including Colombia, Argentina, and Ecuador.
Uruguay’s move comes as Latin American leaders increasingly move toward alternatives to the failed War on Drugs. At the request of several Latin American leaders, the United Nations will hold a summit on new approaches to international drug policy. In proposing the summit to the UN in September, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderon questioned the U.S.-led war on drugs, and said the UN should lead a debate over a “less prohibitionist” approach. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said during the meeting that it is the UN’s duty to “determine – on an objective scientific basis – if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat this scourge.” He also said that Colombia would be open to legalization if other countries were to also do so, and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has outright endorsed legalization in the past. A recent report by major Western Hemisphere nations touted the potential benefits of drug decriminalization and/or legalization. Uruguay President Jose Mujica has been behind his country’s legalization proposal since its inception.
Former Mexican President Vicente Fox has recently become an outspoken proponent for U.S. marijuana legalization, recognizing that U.S. prohibition has a major impact on demand for drugs supplied by Latin American countries.