RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We turn our attention now to Uruguay where voters are going to the polls to elect a new leader today. The outgoing president, Jose Mujica, was famous for his liberal policies including a law legalizing pot. The frontrunner in today's election is a member of Mujica's leftist party. And if he wins, that controversial law will stay in place. NPR's South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro went to Uruguay to see how that historic experiment is shaping up.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: If you want to see how interested the now multibillion-dollar global cannabis industry is in Uruguay, you only have to spend a few minutes at this shop in Uruguay's capital.
JUAN MANUEL VARELA: Hey, my name is Juan Manuel Varela. I am one of the three owners of Urugrow. That is a grow shop in Montevideo.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Varela lists the products he sells.
VARELA: We have nutrient, we have lightings, ballasts, reflectors. We have bongs, grinders.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everything you need.
VARELA: Yes, everything you need to grow it and to smoke it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It, of course, is marijuana. And in the first few minutes I'm in the shop. Varela gets a call from Brazil.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then a Canadian trying to sell his childproof cannabis packaging shows up. Shortly after, two American travelers stop by looking to score weed. Another lurking Argentinean pot-preneur, Mauricio Luporini explains to them that under the new law, selling to foreigners is illegal.
MAURICIO LUPORINI: I don't buy nothing on the street, all that stuff.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Afterwards, Luporini tells me he's also looking to get a piece of the cannabis market.
LUPORINI: Uruguay is such a little country with not many people. You know, the speed of the people is slow, you know. But it has a great potential.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, Uruguayans are proud to tell you they're tranquilos or chilled. But with the new legislation, has come a lot of global interest and a lot of problems for the tiny nation. This person quips.
LUPORINI: I believe the Uruguayan government has been invaded by a big monster, which is called cannabis.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is how the new law is supposed to work. Uruguayans have to register to be able to grow their own weed or join growing clubs where up to 45 people can be a part of a kind of marijuana cooperative for personal consumption. And under the leadership of the Uruguay's maverick president, Jose Mujica, Uruguay went further than any country in the world. The government is going to plant, cultivate and ultimately distribute marijuana too.
Mujica said decades of failed drugs war policies necessitated a radical new approach to curb drug violence and addiction in the region. If the government is selling pot, the idea goes, then the criminals can't.
Under a tarp tied to a rusted car, dozens of cannabis plants, a lemon haze hybrid if you have to know, are being pruned in the summer sun at a new growing club. Julio Rey is the president of the Cannabis Growers Association of Uruguay. He's about as far away from the business frenzy in downtown Montevideo as you can get.
JULIO REY: (Through translator) We don't see this as a business. We see this as a social advance and a victory of rights.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When I ask him how many clubs so how far have been formed he says...
REY: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Six to 15. It's not so clear. So this is the thing. Despite all the publicity and world-wide attention, only around a thousand people have registered for the government program so far. Rey explains this is partly a cultural issue. Pot smoking flourished in the shadows for a long time, and people were worried during the election that those who oppose the law could come to power and try and scrap it.
The government too, though, has had to change its plan on where the marijuana fields will be located, for example. Who will grow it? Rey says there isn't really anyone in Uruguay who knows enough about how to plant marijuana on an industrial scale. And also, who will guard it? Which has meant that the government's part of the whole project hasn't really gotten off the ground yet. And now, there's a fierce debate about how the drug will be distributed too. Analyst Ignacio Zuasnabar from Uruguay's Catholic University.
IGNACIO ZUASNABAR: (Through translator) So there are also questions like how should this product be taxed? If you tax it like cigarettes, for example, you'll make it too expensive. People will go to the black market. What happens if the stock of marijuana that the government produces can't meet demand? Can the Uruguayan State import marijuana? Can it export it? All this is extremely complicated.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the center of all this is Julio Calzada, the secretary general of the National Commission on Drugs who is overseeing the implementation of the law.
SECRETARY GENERAL JULIO CALZADA: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are one or two months behind schedule, he acknowledges. But the stages are going as planned, he says. When pushed on some of the problems the government has encountered, he said what pretty much everyone on all sides of the issue has said about this grand experiment.
CALZADA: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the first time this has been done anywhere in the world, he tells me. There are a lot of things we are inventing from nothing. Or as another guy said in Uruguay with a mixture of chagrin and pride, we are just kind of winging it. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.
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