BUENOS AIRES -- Uruguay appears likely to become the first Latin American country to legalize marijuana after its lower house of Congress approved a bill to regulate and sanction the consumption of pot.
Uruguay’s upper house, the Senate, still must pass the measure, but analysts believe the government-led majority favors the law and that it will be approved by October. President Jose Mujica is a strong proponent of the measure, though polls have shown a majority of Uruguayans oppose it.
The 50-46 vote in the capital, Montevideo, late Wednesday came as legalization or decriminalization of drugs increasingly is debated among Latin American leaders who see the U.S.-led war on drugs as a failure.
Cocaine, marijuana and heroin continue to flow to U.S. consumers, while Latin American countries pay the price in violence and organized crime, leaders have complained. The presidents of Guatemala and Colombia have said new ways of stopping drug trafficking should be considered.
“Uruguay will be bravely taking a leading role in establishing and testing a compelling alternative to the prohibitionist paradigm,” said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based think tank that has urged that drug policies be revised.
In a statement Thursday, Walsh noted that Uruguay would join the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington in legalizing the consumption of marijuana, and that dozens of drug policy nongovernmental organizations, as well as former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, endorsed the measure.
As passed by the Uruguayan chamber of deputies, the law somewhat resembles California’s medical marijuana law, although the Uruguayan measure is intended for recreational use. It would allow home cultivation of marijuana and the monthly sale of up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) per month to users who buy it at specially licensed pharmacies. The lawmakers turned aside a Mujica initiative that the state monopolize the drug’s production and distribution.
The law would also allow the formation of so-called marijuana clubs, with 15 to 45 members each, to grow the plants. Mujica has touted the law as a way of fighting illegal drug trafficking, which he has said has brought more violence to his nation.
“At the heart of the Uruguayan marijuana regulation bill is a focus on improving public health and public safety,” said Hannah Hetzer, of New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, a civil society group that favors new approaches to what it calls a “failed war on drugs.”
Casting a decisive vote was deputy Dario Perez, who said he went along with the proposal to maintain solidarity with fellow members of his Frente Amplio party, despite personal doubts that he said are shared by a majority of Uruguayans. According to a poll by the firm Cifra, 63% of the population opposes marijuana legalization and only 26% supports it.
“I am a member of the Frente Amplio, they are my comrades and so I will cast my fate with them and see what the effects of this are five or 10 years from now,” Perez said.
[For the record, 2:38 p.m. Aug. 1: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of the Drug Policy Alliance’s Hannah Hetzer.]
Special correspondents D’Alessandro and Kraul reported, respectively, from Buenos Aires and Bogota, Colombia.