Uruguay Approves Game Changing Marijuana Law

PHOTO: A young man lights a marijuana cigarette during a demonstration demanding a new law on cannabis in Montevideo on May 8, 2013.

Uruguay is a tiny nation of three million people known mostly for its feisty soccer team and its juicy, sirloin steaks.

But legislators in that country got to do something with potential global repercussions on Wednesday, when they approved a marijuana law that could begin to change how the rest of the world deals with drugs.

The bill that was debated by Uruguay's Congress on Wednesday legalizes the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana for recreational use. It got 50 out of 96 votes in the lower house, and will now go to the senate, where it is also likely to pass.

This law resembles initiatives that were recently approved in Washington and Colorado. Except that this is a national law, which will make Uruguay the first country to fully legalize weed. (Holland, by contrast, has decriminalized consumption but not production or commerce. Although it somewhat tolerates these activities.)

The law will allow Uruguayan citizens to buy up to 40 grams of pot per month at pharmacies licensed by the state. Individuals are also allowed to grow up to six plants at home for personal use, and companies that want to produce weed for commercial purposes can apply for government permits to grow the plant.

Uruguay's progressive president, Jose Mujica has been pushing for this law for roughly the past year. He believes that legalization can help to push criminal groups out of the marijuana market by offering pot smokers a product that is cheaper and better than what they can find on the streets. The Uruguayan government also hopes that legalization will enable police to focus on intercepting harder drugs, and also allow them to spend more of their time investigating other crimes.

But the bill does present several challenges, which experts will be looking at closely once implementation gets underway.

A big question that analysts are posing is whether Uruguay's marijuana law will actually make legal weed cheaper than the black market stuff, which is currently being smuggled into the country from nearby Paraguay.

To keep legal weed cheap and effectively hit the pocketbooks of drug cartels, the government will have to make sure that there are enough suppliers in the country with licenses to produce the stuff. Politicians will also have to refrain from taxing weed too much, even if some people in the country pressure them to impose high taxes because they see marijuana as a dangerous vice.

It's also possible that once pot is legalized the number of addicts could increase. To prevent this, the legalization program will have to be complemented by measures that make it easier for people to seek treatment.

According to John Walsh, a drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank, it's important to not "oversell" the benefits of Uruguay's marijuana law.

"I think it will offer improvements on a whole range of measures, like reducing the revenues of criminal groups, reducing incarceration levels and probably reducing violence," Walsh said in a phone interview. "But it's not going to [completely] solve any of those problems."

Walsh added that even if the marijuana law falls short, or requires adjustments, it should be praised for its precedent-setting status. He believes it could encourage other countries in Europe and Latin America to try out similar measures. It might also help them stand up to international treaties -- such as the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs -- that currently ask countries to strictly prohibit the production and sale of marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs.

"Uruguay is a small country that takes its international obligations seriously," Walsh said. "They know that this proposal is quite at odds, with what the global conventions permit."

There are actually several experts on drug policy, who believe that the U.S. will eventually become one of the countries that challenges the UN's prohibitionist treaties, and takes steps to legalize marijuana at a national level.

That's because over the past few years public opinion has shifted stateside, with polls showing that a majority of Americans now support marijuana legalization and also favor a shift in drug strategy.

Gary Hale a former DEA intelligence expert who fought cartels for three decades says that the federal government has been tough on marijuana since the Nixon era. This began in part, because of the drug's association with liberal, anti-government groups.

But Hale added that nowadays there is little medical evidence that warrants strict prohibition of the drug. "We have progressed, we have evolved and all the dangerous things that were said about marijuana didn't come to be," Hale said. "Legalization is an inevitability, it's something that will happen whether we like it or not."

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