Uruguay has edged closer toward legalising the recreational use of cannabis after the country’s lower house approved a sweeping measure that would allow the government to regulate the production and distribution of the substance.
In a move that would make Uruguay the first country in the world to create a legal cannabis market, all 50 members of the country’s ruling Broad Front coalition approved the proposal in a party line vote just before midnight on Thursday.
The measure now moves to the senate, which is expected to approve legalisation later this month and hand President Jose Mujica a landmark victory in his effort to explore alternatives to the global war on drugs.
“In a regional context, the Uruguay vote echoes calls from presidents calling for a change in drug policy,” said Hannah Hetzer, a Latin America coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance who lives in Uruguay.
“The measure is an effort to put a halt on what Uruguayans see as a wave of crime related with marijuana.”
The measure, aimed in part at redirecting police resources toward fighting street crime, would allow people to grow up to six cannabis plants in their homes and marijuana cooperatives to cultivate up to 99 plants, a model widely used in Spain.
The bill would also allow private companies to grow cannabis, which would be sold in licensed pharmacies.
To avoid making the country a cannabis tourist destination, only Uruguayans would be allowed to buy and use the drug under the measure, which caps monthly purchases at 45g per individual.
The measure would adjust a contradiction in Uruguayan law, where cannabis use is decriminalised but production, distribution and sale are illegal.
The Uruguay initiative highlights a growing movement in Latin American, where a chorus of former and sitting presidents are calling for global re-think on the war on drugs, a prohibitionist model established by the United States 40 years ago, when Richard Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration.
That design, critics claim, has immersed the region in drug-related violence and done little to curtail drug trafficking and consumption.
In 2009, the former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico urged President Obama to consider new policies in the drug war, ones that treat drug use as a public health problem.
Last year, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina proposed drug legalisation in front of the UN General Assembly, a call that was supported by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who also called for a global debate on the war on drugs.
In May, the Organisation of American States released a report calling on global leaders to re-examine the war on drugs, including cannabis legalisation as a policy alternative.
The organisation also examined four alternative strategies, including the idea of abandoning the 40-year drug war fight entirely.