MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - Uruguay is poised to become the first nation to create a legal, regulated marijuana market, encouraging growers and sellers to produce enough pot to keep users from depending on illegal drug traffickers.
The plan to put the government at the center of a legal marijuana industry has made it halfway through the congress, giving President Jose Mujica a long-sought victory in his effort to explore alternatives to the global war on drugs.
"I'm an old man ... I never smoked marijuana, but I have come to notice what the life of young people is like," Mujica said Thursday in a radio address defending the proposal that was approved late Wednesday by congress' lower house. "The consumption is already happening - it's around every corner, and it comes from a clandestine market that by nature has ferocious rules. It's a monopoly of mafias."
Mujica said that for every 10 deaths by drug overdose, there are 100 people murdered by drug traffickers or shot down in the fight against organized crime.
"The worst thing of all is that it never ends!" he said. "How many keep falling? And drugs are still out there - why? Because the profits are enoooooormous!"
The move drew both praise and criticism Thursday as word spread that 50 of 96 lawmakers in the lower house of congress had voted in favor. It now goes to the Senate, where approval is expected.
Smoking pot has long been legal in Uruguay, but growing, carrying, buying or selling has called for prison terms. If the legislation is enacted, licensed adults will be able to have marijuana for any reason, including medicinal, recreational and industrial uses.
"Sometimes small countries do great things," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S. Drug Policy Alliance. "Uruguay's bold move does more than follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington. It provides a model for legally regulating marijuana that other countries, and U.S. states, will want to consider - and a precedent that will embolden others to follow in their footsteps."
The U.S. government, faced with its own legalization movement at the state level, such as in Colorado and Washington, largely stayed out of the Uruguayan debate, leaving people like Pope Francis to speak out against the "liberalization of drugs" during his recent trip to Brazil. It fell to the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board to criticize the vote in Uruguay as violating the country's treaty obligations.
"INCB urges the Uruguayan authorities to ensure that the country remains fully compliant with international law which limits the use of narcotic drugs, including cannabis, exclusively to medical and scientific purposes," the agency said.
But Uruguay's determination to legalize pot was lauded by many, including Terry Nelson, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent who now advocates for ending the drug war as part of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition group.
"This bill ensures a safer Uruguay and it should be a model for the world," Nelson said. "The passage of this bill will allow police to spend their time and resources on violent crime, devastate criminal networks in the country who rely on marijuana income, create jobs, generate tax revenue, and ensure the quality and safety of the product for those who choose to use it."
The global drug war's heavy death toll, questionable results and high costs to treasuries and freedoms prompted former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to join a growing number of former world leaders in declaring the war a failure and calling for marijuana legalization.
In Latin America, Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala have called for decriminalizing drugs, and the Organization of American States is openly encouraging new approaches. Jose Miguel Inzulza, the OAS secretary-general, personally visited Mujica and praised the initiative ahead of the house vote.
Mujica, who says he never smoked pot himself, said regulating marijuana is necessary because so many people already do, thus endangering themselves and the nation by fostering organized crime.
His critics said licensing marijuana will only encourage more people to become addicted to narcotics.
"I believe that we're risking too much. I have the sensation that we're playing with fire," said Gerardo Amarilla, a lawmaker in Uruguay's opposition National Party.
Under the proposal, 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 at pharmacies.
Carrying, growing or selling pot without a license could bring prison terms, and driving under the influence would be punishable as well. But licensed consumers could grow up to six plants at a time at home, and growing clubs with up to 45 members each would be encouraged, overseen by an Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis.