(Updates with details of senate debate in second paragraph.)
Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Uruguay will probably become the first country in the world to legalize the sale of marijuana as the Senate today is poised to give final approval to a bill presented by President Jose Mujica.
Mujica, who controls 16 of the 31 seats in Senate, said the bill will undermine a $30 million-a-year trade by criminals, allowing pharmacies to sell as much as 40 grams of marijuana a month to registered users. His proposal, which has been approved by a 50-46 vote in the lower house, would create a state- regulated market with prices set by the government. The senate began debating the bill at 10.30 a.m. in Montevideo.
Uruguay is spearheading a movement in Latin America to combat drug trafficking by legalizing the use of the psychoactive substance. In the U.S., Colorado and Washington last year became the first states to legalize the recreational use and sale of cannabis. Medicinal marijuana is legal in 20 U.S. states including California. Research to find alternatives to prohibition has been funded by billionaire George Soros, who met Mujica in New York in September.
“These are uncharted waters -- no nation has ever done this,” John Walsh, Senior Associate for Drug Policy and the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America, said in a phone interview. “There will be a lot of curiosity to see how this goes forward.”
Uruguay is betting that legalizing the sale of cannabis will undermine the black market by providing quality control and a risk-free environment for consumers purchasing the product, Walsh said. Tourists and Uruguayans under 18 years old will be barred from purchasing the drug.
Mujica said he hopes the measure will provide savings for the government which is spending $80 million a year combating drug trafficking.
The 78-year-old former guerrilla, who said he has never tried the drug himself, said the measure won’t convert the country into a tourist destination for recreational drug takers. Instead, by registering consumers, the government will be able to identify those who need help combating addiction.
“We don’t like drugs, but drugs exist and circulate and so by hiding them we’re less likely to deal with them,” he said Sept. 26. “We want to get it out in the open to know who is consuming, see what problems they have, attend to them.”
Mujica’s initiative faces resistance from neighbors nervous about spillover across their borders and almost two-thirds of Uruguayans are wary that the government’s plan could go wrong.
Mujica said that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff told him she didn’t think the measure would work in Brazil because of the size of her country. Brazil last month sent a delegation to Uruguay to express concern about the proposed legislation.
In a Cifra / Gonzalez Raga & Asociados survey, 61 percent of Uruguayans said they opposed legalizing the sale of cannabis while 28 percent expressed support. About 11 percent had no opinion. The Aug. 15-24 poll of 1,004 people had a margin of error of 3 percent.
Critics say the legislation won’t work because underage consumers and tourists will continue to seek out the black market.
“It’s wrong to think that it will minimize drug trafficking because the law prevents its sale to children under 18 among which, according to experts, there are thousands of consumers,” said Carlos Moreira, a senator from the opposition National Party. “Uruguay is going to be a marijuana guinea pig and will end up increasing addicts.”
Setting the correct price will be one of the government’s main challenges, said Walsh. While the authorities will probably seek to undercut illegal drug dealers with a lower price, if the government sets the price too low, illegal drug dealers may seek to divert supplies from the government market to the black market.
Support for the legalization of cannabis is growing and more countries will follow Uruguay’s example, said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, A Washington-based organization that lobbies for marijuana policy reform.
“Marijuana prohibition creates underground markets that generate billions of dollars in tax-free revenue for violent drug cartels and traffickers,” Riffle said, according to a statement. “Regulating marijuana will allow authorities to control it and ensure profits are being used to benefit communities instead of criminals.”
--Editors: Robert Jameson, Daniel Cancel