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Uruguay poised to legalize pot as Senate debates first bill of its kind
Agence France Presse
Marcelo Vazquez, a marijuana grower, checks the leaves of his marijuana plants for fungus, on the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
Marcelo Vazquez, a marijuana grower, checks the leaves of his marijuana plants for fungus, on the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
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MONTEVIDEO: Uruguay was poised Tuesday to pass a ground-breaking bill that will make the South American country the first anywhere to legalize the production, sale and consumption of marijuana, under state control.

“The war against drugs has failed,” Senator Roberto Conde said as he presented the bill on behalf of the ruling leftist Broad Front, calling it an “unavoidable response” to that failure.

The bill, which passed the lower house of Congress in August, was assured of passage in the Senate because the ruling coalition controls both chambers.

It will authorize the production, distribution and sale of cannabis, allow individuals to grow their own pot on a small scale and provide for clubs of consumers – all under state supervision and control.

The law is an initiative of President Jose Mujica, a 78-year-old former leftist guerrilla who acknowledges that the approach is an experiment.

It goes well beyond the marijuana legalization measures recently approved by the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington or the similarly liberal laws of the Netherlands and Spain.

Under Uruguay’s proposed law, consumers over the age of 18 will be able to grow their own marijuana, though no more than six plants per person. Or they can get it through clubs or buy up to 40 grams per month from pharmacies.

In every case, they must be registered with the government.

Conde argued that the law strikes a balance between individual liberty and public health, while also resolving the “grotesque juridical inconsistency” arising from the status quo, in which marijuana consumption is not penalized but its production and sale is.

Uruguay’s opposition parties are all against the measure, as are pharmacists, who reject the idea that marijuana will be sold in drug stores.

There is widespread public skepticism as well in this small country of 3.3 million. A poll in September found that 61 percent disapprove of the law.

Passage of the law will “diminish the perception of risk and foster consumption, especially among children and adolescents,” Senator Alfredo Solari of the opposition Colorado Party said.

“Neither our government nor the rest of the world should experiment with Uruguayans,” he said.

Uruguayan psychiatrists were divided over the measure, with some arguing it would help tamp down the use of more dangerous drugs, and others saying that it trivializes the harmful effects of marijuana use.

Not all users were in favor of the law, either, with some chafing at the government controls.

“It’s invasive because it is not up to the government to determine how much marijuana can be consumed and the quality,” said Alicia Castilla, the author of a book on “Cannabis Culture” who spent three months in jail for growing pot at home.

In a region where the war on drugs has claimed thousands of lives, the Uruguayan initiative has won the support of former Latin American presidents who served on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, but it is viewed with concern by neighboring Argentina and Brazil.

The International Narcotics Control Board, which oversees the implementation of international treaties on drugs, has warned that it violates the Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs, adopted in 1961 by Uruguay and 185 other countries.

“We are convinced that we can apply our policy in a way that is totally compatible with our international obligations,” Conde said.

The government has accompanied action on the law with a publicity campaign featuring the slogan, “All drug consumption has risks.”

Conde said the law dealt with an already entrenched social reality.

“Marijuana is the illegal drug that is most consumed, fundamentally by young people, one that has an extremely low risk perception and that is easily obtained,” he said.

Consumption of cannabis has doubled in the country over the past decade and now accounts for 70 percent of the illegal drug use in Uruguay.

The government estimates 128,000 of the country’s inhabitants smoke pot, although marijuana consumer groups put the number at about 200,000.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 11, 2013, on page 11.
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