Uruguay passes far-reaching marijuana legalization law

Government will allow people over the age of 18 to grow up to six plants for personal use

Elvira Palomo
Activists share a joint in front of the Senate in Montevideo.
Activists share a joint in front of the Senate in Montevideo.Matilde Campodonico (AP)

Uruguay on Tuesday became the first country in the world to allow its citizens to freely grow, buy and smoke marijuana after the Senate approved a controversial bill that divided members of President José Mujica’s supporters.

The legalization bill, which narrowly passed the Chamber of Deputies this summer, won’t go into effect until as early as April because government regulators still have to implement the necessary measures at pharmacies, where citizens will be able to purchase up to 40 grams on a monthly basis.

After 13 hours of debate, senators voted 16 to 13 to approve the historic law. All members of Mujica’s Broad Front (FA) coalition voted in favor of measures despite their initial objections during the more than year-long public discussions over legalization.

The government will allow people over the age of 18 to grow up to six plants for their own use. The law also permits the creation of marijuana clubs, with a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 45 members, and with authorization to grow up to 99 plants.

In a television interview Tuesday before the vote, President Mujica said the “entire world is failing” in its attempted interdiction efforts.

“This month, the rate of revenge killings rose, and the majority of those murders are linked to drug trafficking,” he said.

Those who don’t want to smoke don’t have to smoke”

“We are not totally prepared [to deal with the legalization], but it is like you, you learned to be a journalist when they gave you the opportunity,” he told the host of the morning program.

Mujica surprised the world in June 2012 when he announced that his government would legalize marijuana in an effort to fight crime.

Uruguay’s National Drug Board, which will control distribution, has said that the prices will be set for four types of cannabis at about one US dollar per gram. The price is the same on the streets, but buyers on the regulated markets will be ensured of purity and offered safer channels to make their purchases.

The government estimates that there are about 120,000 smokers in Uruguay, which has a population of 3.3 million. With legalization, the government thinks the number of users could grow to 200,000.

“The drug-trafficking problem in Uruguay cannot wait for a solution that comes from consensus among multilateral organizations,” said FA Senator Roberto Conde.

Alfredo Solari, a physician who serves as a senator for the opposition Colorado Party, said that the law will have “irreversible effects” and played down the drug-trafficking problem in the country.

“Montevideo is not Tijuana, nor is Uruguay Paraguay. We are not at the epicenter of the fight against drugs or even close to it,” said Solari, a former health minister.

One-third of Uruguay’s prison population is serving time for drug-related offenses, according to government figures.

Last December, Mujica asked that the legislation be put on hold after polls showed that nearly 70 percent of Uruguayans were against the measure. The president explained that he needed more time to explain to his constituents why this law was needed.

A recent poll by Equipos Consultores shows that 27 percent of Uruguayans now approve the law — up from 21 percent in June — while 58 percent still reject it, compared to 68 percent six months ago.

Outside the Senate chamber, people celebrated the passing of the legalization law.

“I came here because I cannot believe this,” said 57-year-old Cecilia López, as she helped hold up a large banner in favor of the bill. “This is a very important step for Uruguay. I hope it goes well and we can share our experiences with other parts of the world.”

A young couple — Mariana, 21, and Gastón 19 — also celebrated the passing of the law. “We are not bothering anyone. Those who don’t want to smoke don’t have to smoke.”

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