Marijuana grower and activist Juan Vaz checks a marijuana plant in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, in August. Uruguay's government has sent a bill to Congress that would allow the state to grow and sell marijuana.
Increasing drug use and narcotrafficking has made some Latin American countries among the most violent places on Earth. But tiny, progressive Uruguay, where it's always been legal to use marijuana, is leading the way with an alternative drug policy.
The government of President Jose Mujica has proposed a law that would put the state in charge of producing and selling marijuana to registered users.
In the capital Montevideo, Adrian Gonzaga and Felipe Castro have a business together and usually work outside installing fiber-optic cables. But on a recent stormy day, like almost everyone else in the city, they're taking the day off: having tea with friends, eating toast with strawberry jam and smoking a joint.
Miguel Rojo/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of legalization of cannabis in Montevideo march toward the Legislative Palace in May as part of the 2012 Global Marijuana March.
Gonzaga and Castro have known each other since childhood. When they were teenagers, they tried pot together, which they got by trading tickets to a school dance. They didn't feel the effects and didn't smoke again for a few years. When they did take it up, Gonzaga says, they decided to grow it themselves.
"There's a difference between marijuanas," he says. "The marijuana that you grow yourself isn't the same as the stuff you buy."
He says what you buy is low quality, and when you go through a dealer, you become part of the illegal drug trade.
Like many countries in the region, Uruguay has seen an increase in violent, drug-related crime. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has announced that it's reopening an office in the country.
Uruguayan officials say they consider marijuana a milder drug than cocaine or heroin. They believe that if pot were legal, they could spend more time cracking down on hard drugs.
Julio Calzada, the secretary-general of Uruguay's National Committee on Drugs, says the closest thing they have to a model is the Netherlands.
"The thing is, the Dutch system has this cynical or hypocritical element, because the state controls the places you go to consume," he says, "but it looks the other way when it comes to how those places get marijuana. And it's really important to worry about that, because those people are still buying on the black market."
Calzada says the key is regulating the market. He says he believes the easiest way to do that is to have the state in on all aspects of it — that is, growing and selling to registered users.
But Congressman Luis Lacalle Pou favors a model where people grow their own pot, and money never changes hands.
"I don't think we have to start running when we don't know how to walk," Lacalle Pou says. "Cultivation, for me, is starting to walk."
Gonzaga, the businessman who grows his own pot, agrees.
He shows me the pot he harvested recently, which he keeps in spotless glass jars. In many ways, Gonzaga is like any proud small producer: He could almost be showing off a special cheese or some ripe tomatoes at a farmers market.
"It's different when you know your plants, when it's marijuana you've had since it was a seed," he says. "This one's fresher, lighter — it has a little more citrus, too."
Whether citizens will be buying pot from the state or growing their own is still being decided. But two things are clear: Uruguay wants to try something radically different. And no one seems worried about what the U.S. might think.
"The reality now is that American hegemony is being questioned more and more economically and culturally," says Calzada, the drugs official. "And that means new openings for certain debates."