Uruguay moves one step closer to becoming first country to legally regulate marijuana

6 August 2013
Hannah Hetzer

On Wednesday 31st July 2013, the Uruguayan House of Representatives approved a marijuana regulation bill, bringing it one step closer to becoming the first country in the world to legally regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana.

President José Mujica of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) first proposed marijuana regulation last June as part of a 15-measure package aimed at fighting crime and public insecurity. The initial bill contained a single article, essentially putting all aspects of the market under government control. In the year since, Uruguayan lawmakers studied marijuana regulation models from around the world and redrafted the bill into a new, comprehensive, 44-article version.

The bill approved on Wednesday allows four forms of access to marijuana: medical marijuana for patients authorized by the Ministry of Public Health, domestic cultivation of 6 plants, licensed sale in pharmacies, and membership clubs where up to 45 members can collectively produce 99 plants. The bill also offers much in the way of harm and risk reduction, putting public health and safety at its center. It prohibits sales to minors, driving under the influence, and all forms of advertising. Most significantly, the bill foresees the investment of resources into health, education, treatment and prevention of problematic drug use.

Though the marijuana regulation initiative had received support from the plenario, the democratic body of the Frente Amplio (FA), and from a diverse coalition of prominent Uruguayan organizations and individuals that form part of the pro-regulation group Regulación Responsable (“Responsible Regulation”), the fate of the bill was uncertain up until the last moment. On the day of the vote, the FA remained uncertain if it had the 50 votes needed to pass, as the one dissenting FA congressmen, Darío Pérez, had still not confirmed his vote. The FA holds 50 out of 99 seats in the Lower House, and as all opposition parties had enforced party discipline against the bill, Pérez’s vote was crucial.

9 hours into the parliamentary debate, Pérez finally took the floor and, after a 20-minute, tension-filled introduction, announced that he will accompany the bill because “with or without this law, drugs will exist.” This prompted 3 opposition party congressmen to leave for the actual vote and it passed, 50-46. The bill will now go to Senate and it will most likely be approved by 2014, if not later this year.

A growing chorus of current and former Latin American political leaders is calling for an end to the war on drugs and a search for alternatives. Presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia and Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala have joined former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), and Ricardo Lagos (Chile) in saying the time has come to “break the taboo” on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs. In May, the Organization of American States produced a report commissioned by heads of state of the region that predicted a likely hemispheric move towards marijuana legalization in the coming years. By approving this measure, Uruguay will take the broad regional discussion on alternatives to drug prohibition one step further and will represent a concrete advance in line with growing global anti-drug war rhetoric.

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