Uruguay has become the first country in the world to legalize the growing and sale of marijuana. A carnival atmosphere ensued outside the Congress building as champions of cannabis-smoking set off fireworks in celebration.
The debate inside had gone on for 12 hours. The President, Jose Mujica, was in favor of legalization; and in the end he prevailed with 16 of the 29 senators voting in favor. One of these, Roberto Conde, had argued, “The war against drugs has failed.” Conde had presented the bill on behalf of the left-wing Broad Front party. He said the bill was an “unavoidable response” to that failure. Another Broad Front senator, Alberto Couriel, was pleased with the outcome, “It is an historic day” he declared, “Uruguay is now on the international forefront of this issue.”
Cannabis can now be produced, distributed and sold in Uruguay; all perfectly legal. This will permit anybody who wants to grow it, even on a small-scale to do so. Also, there will be clubs for consumers, controlled by the state.
Mujica, 78, does admit that it is an experiment. He is a former guerrilla fighter who has spent years in jail. Said to be the poorest leader in the world he donates 90% of his salary to charity. He knows there are doubts about it, and those doubts are legitimate. But he says that those same doubts should not paralyze them from trying “new paths” to deal with the problem. He says they are giving it a chance.
It is agreed in many circles that the war against the drug barons has not, and shows no signs of ever being won. Mujica’s idea is the first attempt to try a different tactic. He hopes to contain addiction and beat organized crime by bringing marijuana under the control and legislation of the state. The market will begin next year to be regulated from “seed to smoke.”
Those participating must be registered and get a license. The opposition are worried that children will be able to get their hands on pot too easily and that there will be a detrimental effect on public health. Senator Conde rebuts that suggestion, saying that the drug is seen to be very low risk and is easy to obtain.
Other countries have relatively relaxed laws on marijuana; notably the Netherlands and Spain. Even in the United States, Colorado and Washington have recently made their legislation more liberal. No country has yet gone this far though. In most countries it remains illegal.
Uruguayans over the age of 18 will be allowed to grow up to six plants, or buy marijuana through the clubs. Forty grams a month will be allowed for purchase through pharmacies.
Aside from the joyful supporters outside the Congress, the majority of the country is not thought to be keen on the new measures. A poll taken in September found 61% disagreed.
The billionaire George Soros has been a backer of the campaign and helped finance TV ads. David Rockefeller is an other high-profile and wealthy ally. This is another source of displeasure to Mujica’s opponents. They say they don’t want to be used as guinea pigs for the rich mens experiments with drug policy.
Uruguay has taken a bold step in legalizing marijuana. The world will be watching with great interest to see how the “experiment” works.
By Kate Henderson