On the heels of Uruguay’s Congressional decision on Tuesday to legalize gay marriage, the country embarks on another bold decision today as it begins a three-month public debate over legalizing marijuana. President José Mujica presented a bill to Congress in November that will be voted on in June, after both proponents and opponents have made their cases to the public.
The bill would allow Uruguayans to possess and cultivate, sell and distribute established amounts of marijuana from their homes or places of work and would set up a government office to issue licenses to do so. In addition to regulating medicinal and recreational marijuana use and distribution, The National Cannabis Institute—as the office would be called—would grow and sell marijuana on its own, introducing a new source of government revenue and becoming the first government in the world to distribute marijuana to its citizens.
The bill is expected to pass easily since Mujica’s allies dominate Congress, yet hesitant public opinion prompted the President to slow down the voting process and establish the public debate period that begins today. According to observers, 64 percent of Uruguayans maintain reservations about such a radical liberalization of marijuana laws. While Congress debates the issue over the next three months, advocates on both sides of the debate will launch campaigns to sway the public.
Uruguay already boasts lax laws that permit both possessing and using marijuana. Proponents of the bill hope that even greater relaxation of the law will drive big drug traffickers out of the market and enable people to smoke marijuana without nourishing the violent, illegal drug trade.
The debate over marijuana legalization has simmered throughout the region over the last several years, but no country has put forth a plan as ambitious as Uruguay’s. Presidents of Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, and Costa Rica have called for a broader debate on relaxing regional drug laws, and other regional leaders have lightened sentences on people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana. The Brazilian and Argentine legislatures have even broached legalizing small quantities of other drugs, such as heroin and cocaine—but all save Uruguay have stopped short of proposing and debating bills to enact real changes.