Uruguay’s House of Deputies voted today to allow the production, commercialization, and distribution of cannabis, taking the first step to becoming the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana. Even though Uruguay never criminalized personal consumption, this vote, passed 50-46, is a much bolder move.
The bill is a more elaborate piece of legislation than the draft introduced to the Uruguayan congress a year ago, which had only one article giving the state the power to regulate the cannabis market. Initially, the government contemplated creating a state-owned monopoly in the production and sale of the drug. The bill approved today provides for a private but strictly regulated market for cannabis. Uruguayans will be able to grow their own pot (up to six plants) or they can join membership clubs which can also grow their own marijuana (up to 99 plants). All crops require prior government authorization.
Also, Uruguayans will be able to buy marijuana from authorized drug stores (up to 40 grams per month). In order to do so, they will have to join a National Registry of Users. Even though the bill stipulates that the registry will be private and the information there is considered “sensitive,” there are good reasons to believe that not many people will rush to a government agency to register as a marijuana user. People under 18 years of age won’t be able to legally access marijuana and all forms of advertisement of the drug are prohibited.
The bill is now headed to the Senate where it is expected to pass. Once it becomes the law of the land, Uruguay will become the world’s standard-bearer of drug policy reform. Even though the country is small and it’s not beset by the plight of drug-related violence seen in Mexico or Central America, Uruguay’s marijuana legalization constitutes a momentous step in the road to dismantling the international prohibitionist regime that has been in place since the 1960s. Marijuana legalization bills have already been introduced in the legislatures of countries such as Chile and Mexico. And let’s not forget that cannabis was legalized last November (via referendum) in Colorado and Washington State.
The Obama administration faces a choice: it may either obstruct the momentum toward reform, or it may engage Latin American countries in an open debate about how to end a failed policy that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. That would be change we can believe in.