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Uruguay's legislators to vote on permitting marijuana -- production, sale, and use

Children in the Mexican state of Sinaloa light candles in protest against mounting drug-related violence in their communities. (Reuters/Daniel Aguilar.)

The South American republic of Uruguay is about to make marijuana history on July 31 – or possibly not.

It all depends on how the voting plays out in the country’s Chamber of Deputies, in what is expected to be an extremely close decision.

If leftist President José Mujica has his way, legislators will vote in favour of a bill that would legalize the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana, a far-reaching package of measures that no other country in the world has so far adopted.

But the vote is almost certain to be close.

The ruling Frente Amplio – or Broad Front – holds a one-vote majority in the 99-seat lower house, which means Mujica will require all of his party’s legislators to vote in favour of the bill. At least one FA deputy, Darío Pérez, has already said he’s against the proposal, but it’s unclear whether he’ll submit to party discipline and vote in favor anyway.

Meanwhile, three opposition party members have declared support for the initiative, but they too might follow instructions from their leadership and vote against.

So it’s a toss-up.

Debate on the measure began at 10 a.m. and was expected to take all day, perhaps until midnight.

If the bill is passed by the lower house, it would proceed to the Senate, where Mujica enjoys a safe enough majority to ensure approval. In that case, the new measures would likely go into effect before the end of this year, even though they don’t seem to be popular politically.

In a recent public-opinion poll, nearly two-thirds of Uruguay’s 3.4 million people opposed the bill, but Mujica insists that legalization of marijuana’s production and supply chain would deny profits to criminals and also break the links that now exist between pot and harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.

Under the proposed plan, registered marijuana users 18 and older would be permitted to purchase up to 40 grams of the drug per month, making their purchases at specially designated pharmacies. Or they could grow up to six plants at a time on their own. The government would supply the seeds and would be the only body authorized to sell the drug.

Whether the bill passes or not, it’s already clear that attitudes toward policing narcotics in Latin America are beginning to change.

Many countries in the region continue to pay an extremely high cost for prohibiting narcotics, including widespread corruption and searing violence. Mujica argues that these afflictions and sorrows are more debilitating than the drugs themselves.

This is a position he shares with ex-presidents from Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, as well as with Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel laureate for literature. Meanwhile, Latin Americans in general seem to be growing weary of the bloody, military-style anti-narcotics strategy that has long been promoted by Washington.

But outright legalization of drugs, even relatively soft drugs such as marijuana, remains a controversial subject, all the way from the Río Grande to Tierra del Fuego – and so all eyes will be on Uruguay, when the new bill is called to a vote.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.


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