Marijuana law introduced to Uruguay congress

Uruguay came one step closer to turning the government into the country's leading pot dealer on Thursday, as lawmakers formally introduced to Congress a framework for regulating the production, sale and consumption of marijuana.

The proposal is much more liberal than what Uruguay's government initially proposed months ago, when President Jose Mujica said only the government would be allowed to sell pot.

The draft law would instead create a National Cannabis Institute with the power to license individuals and companies to produce and sell marijuana for recreational, medicinal or industrial uses. It would foster marijuana growing clubs to provide the weed to their members. And most significantly, it would allow anyone to grow a limited amount of marijuana in their own homes, and possess marijuana for their own consumption.

"The thrust is the same, to create state-controlled markets. This provides the legal framework," Colette Youngers, a drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America who came to Montevideo to advise lawmakers and others drafting the proposal, told The Associated Press. "The main difference is that they have incorporated the idea of cultivation for personal use, and also the cannabis clubs, which was not in the initial proposal."

Uruguay still hopes to drive big-time drug dealers out of the marijuana business and enable pot smokers to buy their weed legally without having to feed the illegal and violent industry that provides addicts with harder drugs such as cocaine and its derivatives.

It also still wants to track pot consumption through a confidential database - perhaps by giving people accounts and cards with magnetic stripes that would track purchases while concealing user's identities, she said.

The proposed law would allow anyone to grow up to possess up to 40 grams (nearly 1.5 ounces) of pot for their own consumption, and grow six pot plants in their own homes, producing up to 480 grams (a little more than a pound) of marijuana at a time. People could join clubs of up to 15 pot smokers who together could grow up to 90 plants and stockpile 7,200 grams (254 ounces, or nearly 16 pounds) a year. The identity of pot buyers would remain protected by law.

Aspects of the proposal are similar to the law voters just approved in the U.S. state of Colorado, which also enables individuals to grow six plants at a time for personal use. In contrast, Washington state's new law does not allow individuals to grow pot. But these states and Uruguay all represent a significant shift in public opinion about marijuana, said Youngers.

"The government is still investigating what is going to be the best way to implement this," Youngers said. "This is an experiment. No country has done this before. So they need to have a law that lays out the framework, but have the flexibility to adjust this as they implement it."

Ruling party Deputy Sebastian Sabini told the AP that opposition lawmakers were invited Thursday to present alternatives to the proposal. He expects it to be quickly forwarded by the Commission on Addiction to the full lower house of Congress, which will pass the law next month. Uruguay's Senate would then take it up early next year, and if it passes, developing the necessary infrastructure and regulations would take much of 2013. Mujica's ruling Broad Front coalition enjoys ample majorities in both houses, so passage isn't in doubt.

The goal of promoting public health remains the same, said sociologist Agustin Lapetina, a Uruguayan drug policy adviser to the Social Development Ministry.

"The central objective is to separate the two markets, that of marijuana from riskier drugs, to minimize the probability that a cannabis consumer goes to the black market and ends up in other drugs," Lapetina told the AP.

"The state certainly will not be the main producer, but instead will license those who produce, distribute and sell" marijuana, Lapetina added. "And with this licensing money, it will collect funds to finance public health and prevention campaigns."

Marijuana legalization activist Juan Vaz has worked with government officials for more than a year on the law, and was pleased with the draft submitted Thursday, although he was surprised to see that pot-growing clubs would be limited to 15 members.

"It is becoming tangible and real. Anything can be improved, but we're in a time of change, during which there are no clear recipes, because nobody has traveled down this path before," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Michael Warren in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.

Enlargephoto

Juan Vaz, activist and marihuana grower, shows marihuana plants he is growing with some friends in Montevideo, Uruguay,Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Uruguayans used to call their country the Switzerland of Latin America, but its faded grey capital seems a bit more like Amsterdam now that its congress has legalized abortion and is drawing up plans to sell government-grown marijuana. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)