MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Uruguay's lower house of congress has voted 50-46 after 13 hours of passionate debate to create a legal marijuana industry in hopes of fighting organized crime.
The plan now goes to the Senate, where passage is expected to make Uruguay the first country in the world to license and regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for adult consumers.
Ruling coalition lawmakers argued Wednesday that it's worth trying because the global war on drugs has been a costly and bloody failure.
Critics warn that marijuana is a gateway drug and that fostering this market is playing with fire.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
Uruguay's unprecedented proposal to fight organized crime by creating a legal marijuana market was hotly debated for more than 13 hours Wednesday, with the governing coalition counting every vote trying to secure passage in the lower house of Congress.
Uruguay would become the world's first country to license and regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for adult consumers if the measure becomes law, the Drug Policy Alliance said.
Supporters hope to eliminate a legal contradiction in Uruguay, where it has been legal to consume pot but against the law to sell it, buy it, produce it or possess even one marijuana plant.
Many argued that the global war on drugs has been a costly and bloody failure.
The vote in the house, where the ruling Broad Front coalition had a 50-49 majority, was seen as the best chance for opponents to block the law. It next would go to the senate, where the government has a more comfortable majority.
The plan changed little in the six months after President Jose Mujica postponed voting to give supporters more time to rally public opinion. However, recent polls said two-thirds of Uruguayans remained opposed despite a "responsible regulation" campaign for the bill.
Dozens of pro-marijuana activists followed the debate from balconies overlooking the house floor, while others outside held signs and danced to reggae music.
"This law consecrates a reality that already exists: The marijuana sales market has existed for a long time, but illegally, buying it from traffickers, and in having plants in your house for which you can be thrown in jail," said Camilo Collazo, a 25-year-old anthropology student. "We want to put an end to this, to clean up and normalize the situation."
Governing coalition Deputy Sebastian Sabini told The Associated Press that "without a doubt it would be a surprise if this proposal doesn't pass, since it's already been agreed to within all the sectors of the Broad Front."
Supporters were sweating until ruling coalition deputy Dario Perez, who was openly critical, agreed to follow his party's line. That would give the government the narrowest possible majority in a vote that still hadn't taken place by the middle of the night.
Mujica, for his part, said he never consumed marijuana, but that the regulations are necessary because many other people do. "Never in my life did I try it, nor do I have any idea what it is," he told the local radio station Carve.
The heavy toll, costs and questionable results of military responses to illegal drugs have motivated marijuana legalization initiatives in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington, and inspired many world leaders to re-think drug laws.
Organization of American States Secretary-General Jose Miguel Inzulza told Mujica last week that his members had no objections. Pope Francis, however, said during his visit to Brazil that the "liberalization of drugs, which is being discussed in several Latin American countries, is not what will reduce the spread of chemical substances."
Uruguay's government would license growers, sellers and consumers, and update a confidential registry to keep people from buying more than 40 grams a month.
Carrying, growing or selling pot without a license could bring prison terms, but licensed consumers could grow up to six plants at a time at home.
Growing clubs with up to 45 members each would be encouraged, fostering enough marijuana production to drive out unlicensed dealers and draw a line between pot smokers and users of harder drugs.
The latest proposal "has some adjustments, aimed at strengthening the educational issue and prohibiting driving under the effects of cannabis," Sabini said. "There will be self-growing clubs, and it will also be possible to buy marijuana in pharmacies" that is mass-produced by private companies.
An Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis would be created, with the power to grant licenses for all aspects of a legal industry to produce marijuana for recreational, medicinal or industrial use.
National Party Deputy Gerardo Amarilla, however, said the government is underestimating the risk of marijuana, which he called a "gateway drug" for other more addictive drugs that foster violent crimes.
"Ninety-eight percent of those who are today destroying themselves with base cocaine began with marijuana," he said. "I believe that we're risking too much. I have the sensation that we're playing with fire."