MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Uruguay's plan to set up a legal, regulated marijuana market has reached its final legislative stage, with the Senate expected to approve the plan by late Tuesday and send it to President Jose Mujica for his signature.
Senators prepared for a long day and night of speeches after debate begins Tuesday morning. The body is dominated by Mujica's ruling Broad Front coalition, which wants to make Uruguay the world's first nation to put the government at the center of a legalized marijuana trade.
Congress' lower house already passed it, and the Senate rejected all proposed amendments, so Senate passage would put the law on the desk of Mujica, who is one of the plan's biggest boosters despite saying he's never tried pot himself.
"This is a plague, just like cigarettes are a plague," Mujica told reporters recently.
Polls say two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose the plan, despite a national TV campaign and other lobbying efforts funded by billionaire currency speculator and philanthropist George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation and Drug Policy Alliance campaigned for the proposal.
Hannah Hetzer, a lobbyist for the Alliance, moved to Montevideo for the campaign, and celebrated the Senate's expected passage. "It's about time that we see a country bravely break with the failed prohibitionist model and try an innovative, more compassionate, and smarter approach," she said in a statement Monday night.
Mujica says the goal is to get organized crime out of marijuana dealing, not to promote the use of pot. The government hopes that when licensed growers, providers and users can openly trade in the drug, illegal traffickers will be denied their profits and go away.
During its hearings, the Senate Health Commission received extensive arguments from educators, psychiatrists and pharmacists urging it to back away from the plan.
Psychiatrists predicted a rise in mental illness. Pharmacists said selling pot alongside prescription drugs would harm their professional image.
Marijuana's negative impact on learning is well known, and "is related to educational failure, behavioral problems and depressive symptoms," teacher Nestor Pereira testified, representing the National Public Education Administration.
But Senate committees sent the proposal for a floor vote without changes, hoping to avoid a return trip to the lower chamber, where it passed by a single vote.
Socialist Deputy Julio Bango, who co-authored the proposal, told The Associated Press: "This is not a law to liberalize marijuana consumption, but rather to regulate it. Today there is a market dominated by drug traffickers. We want the state to dominate it."
The project includes a media campaign, launched Friday, aimed at reducing pot smoking by warning of its dangers to human health.
Uruguay's drug czar, Julio Calzada, said no pharmacist or other business will be forced to sell the drug.
Calzada said his office will have 120 days to craft regulations following adoption. Mujica pledged that his government will work through the traditional southern summer holidays to make the rules as precise as possible.
"There will be much to discuss and to work on. We'll spend the summer working. There's nothing magic about this," the president said.
As for concerns that Uruguay could become a mecca for marijuana tourism, Mujica stressed that the measure would restrict the legal sale of pot only to licensed and registered Uruguayan adults.
Marijuana grower Marcelo Vazquez told the AP he can't wait to pay taxes on the weed he's grown illegally for 20 years. After repeated police raids and arrests, he's optimistic. He has a greenhouse of marijuana plants growing outside Montevideo and is thinking about creating a business catering to licensed growers who lack space in their own homes.
"This is a huge opportunity and we have to take advantage of it," Vazquez said. "My lifelong dream has been to legally cultivate marijuana, and to live off this, to pay my taxes."