MONTEVIDEO – Uruguay’s Senate gave final congressional approval Tuesday to create the world’s first national marketplace for legal marijuana, an audacious experiment that will have the government oversee production, sales and consumption of a drug illegal almost everywhere across the globe.
The vote was 16 to 13, with the governing Broad Front majority united in favor. The plan now awaits the signature of President Jose Mujica, who wants the market to begin operating next year.
While opinion polls suggest that two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose a government-run marijuana industry, Mujica has said he’s convinced that the global drug war is a failure and feels bureaucrats can do a better job of containing addictions and beating organized crime than police, soldiers and prison guards.
“Today is an historic day. Many countries of Latin America, and many governments, will take this law as an example,” cheered Sen. Constanza Moreira, voting with the Broad Front majority.
Uruguay’s drug control agency will have 120 days — until mid-April — to draft regulations imposing state control over the entire market for marijuana, from seed to smoke.
Everyone involved in production must be licensed and registered, with government monitors enforcing limits such as the 40 grams a month that any adult will be able to buy from pharmacies for any reason, or the six plants that license-holding “growers” will be able to cultivate in their homes.
Congress’ lower house approved the bill in late July, and senators rejected all proposed amendments, enforcing party discipline before Tuesday’s debate to assure the outcome.
Former Health Minister Alfredo Solari, a Colorado Party senator, warned Tuesday that children and adolescents will be able to get their hands on pot more easily, and that “the effects of this policy on public health will be terrible.”
But Sen. Roberto Conde, a former deputy foreign minister with the Broad Front, said marijuana “is already established in Uruguay. It’s a drug that is already seen as very low risk and enormously easy to get.”
Mujica, a 78-year-old former leftist guerrilla who spent years in prison while many others experimented with marijuana, said the goal is to reduce drug use. A government ad campaign launched Friday makes the same point, warning of pot smoking’s dangers to human health.
“This is not liberalization of marijuana. It can be consumed within certain parameters established by law. I think it will reduce consumption,” said Sen. Luis Gallo, a retired doctor who favored the bill.
The government got help from a national TV campaign and other lobbying efforts supported by billionaire currency speculator and philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundation and Drug Policy Alliance. In September, Mujica met with Soros and billionaire David Rockefeller in New York to explain his “experiment.”
These deep-pocketed connections drew criticism from Mujica’s opponents.
“I would say to Mr. Soros, to Mr. Rockefeller, and to the president of the republic that you don’t experiment with the Uruguayans. We are not guinea pigs,” Colorado Party Sen. Pedro Bordaberry said Tuesday.
Hannah Hetzer, a lobbyist for the Alliance who moved to Montevideo for the campaign, watched closely from the Senate gallery.
“Uruguay is seeking an alternative to a failed model. I think that this is the beginning of the end of a prohibitionist model and the beginning of a more intelligent focus,” she said.