After Drug Policies Fail, Uruguay Tries Grand Pot Experiment

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In the tiny South American nation of Uruguay, it's long been legal to smoke one's own homegrown marijuana. Now the government is getting close to putting the government in charge of producing and selling the nation's pot.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Moving on to some marijuana-related news in South America, Uruguay is on the verge of becoming the first nation in the world to produce and distribute marijuana. That means the government will completely control cultivation, harvesting, storage and distribution.

NPR's South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has our story.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: The debate was heated and it went on for hours in Uruguay's Lower House but eventually the bill passed. It now needs to be approved by the Senate, which is considered inevitable.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica today called what Uruguay is doing a cutting edge experiment for the whole world. Congressman Julio Bango is one of the main promoters of the bill.

REPRESENTATIVE JULIO BANGO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The problem was until recently we had decriminalized the consumption of marijuana but not the distribution. So we had a paradox that we were giving a captive clientele to the drug traffickers, he says. This law will provide a regulated market controlled by the state.

The bill as it stands now would allow three forms of access to marijuana: personal ownership of up to six plants, buying the drug from a dispensary, or a marijuana growing club. It also prohibits sales to minors and all forms of advertising. And in order to stop the drug being exported to nearby countries or drug tourism, everyone who wants to use will have to be registered and they have to be an Uruguayan national.

Bango says this comes after years of failure of U.S.-led drugs policy.

BANGO: (Through Translator) If we look at the grim results that war on drugs has produced in Latin America, where there are tens of thousand killed, then we see the way we have been fighting trafficking is exhausted and we have to find alternatives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hannah Hetzer is with the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance who worked on the bill. She spoke to NPR by phone from Uruguay.

HANNAH HETZER: This isn't a pro marijuana bill. It's a pro reform bill aimed at benefiting all of Uruguayan society.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hetzer says the eventual law will hit at criminal activity.

HETZER: It's looked at as a way of taking money away from the drug traffickers' pockets, preventing what has happened in other countries in Latin America, and taking a market that already exists but is now run by organized crime and putting it under the government control and a regulatory framework.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is still fierce opposition to the measure and critics are vowing to take the law, once enacted, to the people in a referendum. They say marijuana is a gateway drug and its regularization will lead to a jump in drug addicts. Recent polls suggest the majority of Uruguayans are against the new bill.

But Congressman Bango says he tells critics the following: If the law doesn't work, we'll change it but, frankly, we can't be worse off than we are now.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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