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Uruguay set to become first nation with fully regulated, legal marijuana

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The Senate in Montevideo, Uruguay passed a landmark marijuana legalization measure on Tuesday, positioning the South American country to become the first nation in the world with a fully regulated, government-sanctioned system in place for marijuana consumption. Although the city of Amsterdam has long been famous for its cannabis cafes, the government’s official policy is akin to turning a blind eye to the drug's use. The Uruguayan bill -- which is expected to be signed into law by President Jose Mujica, who has publicly endorsed it -- is closer to the measures passed by the states of Colorado and Washington, which outline specific regulatory policies.

Under the new law, individuals will be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants and possess as much as 480 grams. Citizens will be able to purchase marijuana at licensed pharmacies, although they will have to register in order to do so and will be held to a strict 40 gram per month limit, all of which will be overseen by a new regulatory agency. Furthermore, foreign tourists will not be able to purchase the drug. Once signed into law, there will be a 120-day waiting period before it goes into effect, to allow the government time to establish full regulations and implementations.

Supporters of the groundbreaking bill said it was necessary corrective to the violent drug cartels who would have otherwise controlled the drug’s distribution.

"Last year, 82 people were killed in drug-related violence in Uruguay. We are starting to see episodes of criminal score-settling, groups of hitmen ... but we are not aware of anybody who died because of marijuana consumption," the head of the National Drug Agency, Julio Calzada, said, according to the BBC.

Others said that setting government regulatory policies will result in an informed public that’s less prone toward abusing the drug.

"It is understood that a regulation-based policy has positive consequences for health and public security, given that, on the one hand, it can produce better results when it comes to education, prevention, information, treatment and rehabilitation in relation to the problematic uses of drugs," said Sen. Roberto Conde, one of the 16 Senators to vote for the bill.

However, unlike the voter initiated measures that paved the way for legalization in Colorado and Washington, recent polls suggest that up to 63 percent of Uruguayans opposed the legalization bill, whose passage came on a slim 16-13 vote.

"This bill, which proposes an experiment in social engineering, as it was described in the public health commission, does not comply with any of the ethical safeguards of experimentation with human beings," said Sen. Alfredo Solari. "Those safeguards are extremely important ... given that we're talking about marijuana, a substance that harms human beings."

Uruguay’s 78-year-old President Jose Mujica -- who has already signed other progressive laws that include South America’s most nonrestrictive abortion policies and same-sex marriage rights -- disagrees.

"If we legalize it, we think that we will spoil the market (for drug traffickers) because we are going to sell it for cheaper than it is sold on the black market," he said. "And we are going to have people identified."

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