URUGUAY — On July 31st the lower house of Uruguay’s congress narrowly voted to legalise the production, sale and consumption of marijuana (cannabis). The bill has passed to the Senate, where it is expected to be approved with a comfortable margin. If it does, it will be signed into law by President José Mujica, who has long backed the proposal. By the end of the month it may be legal to light up a joint while watching the sun set over Punta del Este. Drug-law reformers hailed the bill’s progress as “historic”. But plenty of other countries, from Portugal to the United States, have loosened up their drug laws in recent years. What makes Uruguay’s proposals different?
Many countries have decriminalised the consumption of at least some narcotics. Portugal, an early trailblazer, decriminalised the personal possession and use of all drugs, including the nastiest ones, back in 2001. But decriminalisation is not the same as legalisation. Drug users in Portugal may still be stopped by the police, have their stash confiscated and be sent before a finger-wagging “dissuasion commission”. The Netherlands has for decades allowed licensed cafes to sell cannabis from elaborate menus. But the supply side of the business remains illegal—so the joints sold (legally) to tourists in Amsterdam are supplied (illegally) by criminals. Last year Colorado and Washington voted to legalise the cultivation, sale and consumption of marijuana. But the United States’ federal government remains opposed, and may yet try to shut the states’ experiment down.
Uruguay’s proposed law would break new ground by legalising the entire business, from cultivation to consumption, across the whole country. If the bill becomes law, Uruguayans will be allowed to cultivate up to six cannabis plants per household, or join cooperatives licensed to grow up to 99 plants each. Private firms will be allowed to grow weed too, but only to sell to the government, which will sell it to customers through pharmacies. Each person will be allowed to buy up to 40g (1.4oz) per month, enough to fuel most habits. Minors will be excluded, and driving under the influence will remain a crime. Foreigners thinking of booking a holiday to Uruguay should be warned that only Uruguayan citizens will be eligible to use the pharmacies.