Uruguay’s Marijuana-Legalization Bid Opens New Chapter in Global Pot Debate

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MIGUEL ROJO / AFP / Getty Images

Uruguayan lawmakers vote on a marijuana-legalization bill in Montevideo, Uruguay, on July 31, 2013

Legislators in Uruguay’s lower house today narrowly voted to legalize marijuana in an ambitious effort to target the illegal drug trade that has plagued the region. The bill, which President José Mujica has strongly supported, is expected to pass in the Senate in the fall, though a majority of Uruguay’s citizens still oppose the measure.

In an extraordinary step, the government will purchase marijuana from licensed growers and distribute it to pharmacies, while private citizens will be permitted to grow the plant for their personal use. Under the law, only Uruguayan nationals will be allowed to purchase the drug, and purchases would be capped at 40 g per month.

Still, Uruguay’s legalization bid is likely the most radical marijuana legislation a country has attempted to adopt. Some countries, like Argentina and Portugal, have previously decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Others deliberately turn a blind eye: the Netherlands tacitly permits its sale through a policy of nonenforcement. In the U.S., the states of Washington and Colorado have passed similar legislation, but the federal government still considers marijuana an illegal narcotic. Uruguay would become the first country (perhaps other than North Korea) to allow marijuana to be grown and consumed by citizens for nonmedicinal purposes, and also the first to legalize a full-scale marijuana industry.

The country may be a prime guinea pig for the legalization movement. Shortly after the bill was proposed last year, TIME contributor and former Latin America bureau chief Tim Padgett wrote:

Uruguay over the past decade has proved to be one of Latin America’s more competent states. (A few years ago, in fact, a U.S. diplomat told me, “It’s a shame Uruguay’s Presidents don’t head a bigger country.”) It has one of the strongest economies on the continent as well as one of the highest rankings on the U.N. Human Development Index and Transparency International’s corruption gauge. And as the pragmatic Mujica pointed out last week, experiments like this are often best undertaken by smaller nations like Uruguay and Portugal, which can serve as more-controlled laboratories for larger countries to study.

Regional leaders, including Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, have called on the hemisphere to reassess its U.S.-driven policy on drugs, and efforts to legalize pot have gained traction as a cost-effective, alternative way to combat Latin America’s illegal drug trade. Padgett wrote:

That trend, aimed at depriving violent drug gangs of part of their narcowealth, reflects growing exasperation with a drug war that is fueled largely by incorrigible U.S. consumption but wreaks its mayhem mostly in Latin America, where Mexico has seen [more than] 60,000 drug-related murders in the past six years.

But the region has struggled to sell legalization to the Obama Administration, which has opposed it at home and abroad. In May, Padgett reported on a study from the Organization of American States — a Washington, D.C.–based organization dedicated to regional cooperation — that urged the White House to warm to the legalization movement in South America. The 400-page, $2 million report concludes that the hemisphere is leaning “toward decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale and use of marijuana. Sooner or later, decisions in this area will need to be taken.”