Uruguay moves to legalise marijuana

Left-wing government recently made gay marriage and abortion legal

Supporters of the bill celebrate after the Uruguayan Senate approved a government-sponsored bill that provides for regulation of the cultivation, distribution and consumption of marijuana during a session in Montevideo. Photograph: Andres Stapff/Reuters

Uruguay's Senate has approved pioneering legislation that will allow the country to legalise the cultivation and sale of marijuana on a nationwide scale. Uruguay's left-wing president, José Mujica, a supporter of the measure, has signaled that he will enact the legislation in coming days.

Under the legislation, approved by a vote of 16-13, Uruguay would create a state-run Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis to oversee the planting, harvesting and sale of marijuana. The drug would be sold at pharmacies, with buyers signing up in a state registry, a process enabling them to purchase as much as 40 grams a month at $1 a gram.

The action on the bill followed years of debate in Uruguay, which has been grappling with an increase in drug-related violence. Opponents contended the measure would open the way for greater drug use in Uruguay while supporters claimed it would remove the marijuana trade from the domain of illegal traffickers, allowing the authorities to regulate and tax marijuana consumption.

People hold a banner reading “Cultivating the freedom Uruguay grows”, during the so-called “Last demonstration with illegal marijuana” in front of the Congress building in Montevideo. Photograph: Andres Stapff/Reuters
Uruguay has become the first country to legalise the growing, sale and smoking of marijuana a pioneering social experiment that will be closely watched by other nations debating drug liberalisation. Photograph: Andres Stapff/Reuters

"We are convinced that we can apply our own policy to drugs in compliance with international norms," said Roberto Conde, a senator in Uruguay's governing Broad Front coalition.


Under Mr Mujica, Uruguay has emerged as one of Latin America’s most progressive nations, moving to legalise gay marriage and abortion. The lower house of Uruguay’s congress approved the marijuana bill in July.

Most Uruguayans oppose the legalisation of marijuana, according to polls, but the Broad Front coalition of leftist parties still seemed to be popular enough to expose itself to disapproval over the law.

"This is seen as forming part of a new agenda, which, in terms of legal rights, Uruguay has advanced in recent years," said Adolfo Garcé, a political scientist at the University of the Republic in Montevideo, the capital. While marijuana is already tolerated to a large degree in Uruguay, the law would allow households to grow as many as six plants each and cooperatives to form to grow as many as 99 plants together. All growers would be required to register their production with the government, which plans to import seeds from abroad and control the potency of plants.

Some opposition to the law has been voiced in neighbouring countries, while the International Narcotics Control Board of the United Nations has also expressed concern. "We could turn into a regional centre of cannabis tourism, as the region fears," said Alfredo Solari, an opposition senator in Uruguay. In an attempt to prevent drug tourism, the law would limit purchases of marijuana in pharmacies to Uruguayan citizens over the age of 18.