URUGUAY’S Congress has voted to create a government body to control the cultivation and sale of marijuana and allow residents to grow it at home, or as part of smoking clubs.
The measure now goes to the country’s Senate, where left-wing president Jose 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.
After hours of debate, 50 legislators voted for the bill and 46 against it.
Mr Mujica, a former guerrilla fighter, says the bill would control the marijuana trade under strict guidelines, help undermine drug-smuggling gangs and fight petty crime. To avoid making the country a drug tourism destination, only Uruguayans would be allowed to use marijuana.
Mr Mujica said he has never smoked marijuana, but thinks regulations are necessary because many other people do.
Critics say the measure risks tempting more Uruguayans on to harder drugs and could anger fellow Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Mexico, battling drug-related violence.
Uruguay is one of Latin America’s safest countries and is considered a trailblazer on liberal lawmaking. But polls show most Uruguayans oppose the proposal.
“We are playing with fire,” said congressman Gerardo Amarilla, a member of the conservative National Party, which opposes the bill.
“In trying to find an outlet for change we are burying ourselves in a reality that is far worse.”
The laws would establish a National Cannabis Institute to control the drug’s production and distribution, impose sanctions on anyone who broke the rules and include educational policies to warn about the risks of marijuana use. Households would be permitted to grow up to six plants, or as much as 480g of marijuana per year.
Regulations would be also be established for smoking clubs with up to 15 members, 90 plants and annual production of up to 7.2kg .
“You can control production and sale, which will bring its own problems that will have to be addressed,” said legislator Julio Bango, a Mujica ally in favour of the legislation. “Or you can have what you have now, which is chaos.”
Dozens of pro-marijuana activists followed the Wednesday night debate from balconies overlooking the house floor, while others outside held signs and danced to reggae music.
“This law consecrates a reality that already exists. The marijuana sales market has existed for a long time, but in illegally, buying it from traffickers, and in having plants in your house for which you can be thrown in jail,” said Camilo Collazo, a 25-year-old anthropology student. “We want to put an end to this, to clean up and normalise the situation.”
The costs and questionable results of military responses to illegal drugs have prompted marijuana legalisation initiatives in Colorado and Washington in the US and inspired some world leaders to re-think drug laws.
The secretary-general of the Organisation of American States, Jose Miguel Inzulza, told Mr Mujica last week that his members had no objections.
Pope Francis, however, said during his visit to Brazil that the “liberalisation of drugs, which is being discussed in several Latin American countries, is not what will reduce the spread of chemical substances”.