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Uruguay Braced to Become First Country to Legalize Marijuana

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After a fierce 13-hour debate, the lower house of the Uruguayan parliament, the chamber of deputies, narrowly approved on July 31 the marijuana legalization bill introduced by President Mujica and his governing coalition. The bill was approved by a thin 50-majority vote of the 96 diputados present in the lower house (out of a total of 99). The bill is now expected to clear the Uruguayan senate where the governing coalition holds a comfortable majority.

Under the bill, a newly created Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis will assume "the control and regulation of the importation, exportation, plantation, cultivation, the harvest, the production, the acquisition, the storage, the commercialization and the distribution of cannabis and its by-products."

Buyers would have to be registered on a database and be over the age of 18. They would be able to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of marijuana per month in specially licensed pharmacies. The bill also authorizes cultivation for personal use of up to six plants. Growers clubs of 15 to 45 members will be allowed to grow up to 99 plants collectively.

To discourage marijuana tourism, foreigners are excluded from the measure.

Uruguayan president José Mujica and his government first announced their intent to submit a proposal for marijuana legalization under governmental control on June 20, 2012. Possession and use of marijuana has been legal in Uruguay since 1974. The main objective of the proposal was to tackle growing drug-related violence mostly linked to cocaine paste. The idea was to cut off the marijuana marketplace from the most dangerous hard drugs marketplace.

Up until the early 2000s, most of the cocaine trade to the US and Europe was taking place on a northern route throughout the Caribbean and Central America, and the southernmost countries were mostly spared the narco violence that devastated most countries located between Colombia and the US. With increased enforcement in the Caribbean region, traffickers opened new routes to the EU through West Africa, transiting through Brazil and Argentina, spilling into Uruguay. As a result, the traditionally sedate country, one of the safest in Latin America, witnessed a dramatic surge in the trafficking and use of cocaine paste and its associated violence. Most of the marijuana currently sold on the Uruguayan blackmarket is smuggled from Paraguay through the ultra-porous borders with Brazil and Argentine.