Just before midnight Wednesday the lower house of congress, in the Uruguayan parliament, approved an unprecedented plan to legalise the production, distribution and sale of marijuana.
The debate in congress was heated and lasted around 13 hours. The Broad Front coalition finally agreed 100% with all 50 members voting in favour. This is just the first step though in legalising marijuana in Uruguay. The senate will now decide whether this controversial plan goes forward, but it is expected to agree that it does.
According to a report in the Guardian: "Uruguay appears poised, in the weeks ahead, to become the first nation in modern times to create a legal, regulated framework for marijuana," said John Walsh, a drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. "In doing so, Uruguay will be bravely taking a leading role in establishing and testing a compelling alternative to the prohibitionist paradigm."
Currently Uruguay has problematic laws regarding marijuana. It is legal to use the drug but illegal to produce, distribute or sell it. Changes in this law are not popular in Uruguay with about two-thrids of the population against reform and legalisation. Some opponents use the old argument that use of marijuana leads to the use of "hard drugs".
The report continues:
National Party deputy Gerardo Amarilla said the government was underestimating the risk of marijuana, which he called a "gateway drug" for other chemical addictions that foster violent crimes.
Illegal drug use is a huge problem the world over. Behind all sales there are a handful of "Mr Bigs" making a great deal of money from the addictions of others. Marijuana is classified as a soft drug and its use is more widespread than some believe. That use crosses age and race boundaries. Users include some with painful health conditions who find some relief by using marijuana.
If Uruguay's plan goes ahead the government will license growers, sellers and consumers. It will keep and update a confidential registry of marijuana consumers to keep people from buying more than 40g a month.
Will it work?
It is difficult to know if this plan will help control or reduce drug misuse in Uruguay. The current situation in that country however is that, like many orther countries, Uruguay is fighting a losing battle against drugs. The world wide effort to stop the spread of drugs has failed and it has been a costly failure. There is the damage to people and communities and then the financial cost of stopping drug trafficking. Drug barons and cartels operate lucrative businesses around the world but legalising marijuana will hit them hard in Uruguay.
They may however move elsewhere rather than pack up operations.
Continental cafe culture is often admired by the authorities in the UK but the cannabis cafes of the Netherlands are a whole different ball game. Citizens of the UK visiting Holland for instance often visit such cafes to partake of the goods on sale. Now foreigners face a blanket ban.
Problems have arisen as some tourists visit to seriously deal in drugs and take more than a souvenir home with them. In May the law on foreigners visiting cannabis cafes is set to change. By the end of 2012 all of the cafes will be affected.
The owners of course view the changes as damaging to their trade. However a recent legal challenge in The Hague has failed. Once the change in the law is implemented users of the Cannabis Cafes will need to be able to provide the necessary paperwork if they want to pop in for a "joint".
Believe it or not the government is looking at creating some sort of "weed pass" which will be available for nationals.
There are around 700 "coffee shops" in the Netherlands which are really cannabis shops. Although the drug has been decriminalised it is still not in truth legal. Possession of up to 5 grams of cannabis tends to go unheeded by police.
One of the cafe owners told the BBC that, "It is going to cost me 90% of my turnover. That is a very good reason for anyone to oppose any plan. Second it puts our customers in a very difficult spot, because why do you have to register to buy a substance that is still illegal?
It seems that he has a point. The owners are lodging an appeal against the proposed changes.
If you want to pay a visit before the ban is in place you can find a directory of the "coffee shops" HERE
Eileen Kersey manages TEK Staff Blog