MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — Uruguay's Senate was finishing its final debate Tuesday before voting on an audacious and risky plan to create the world's first national marijuana market, with the state regulating the entire process of growing, selling and using a drug that is illegal almost everywhere else.
Approval late Tuesday was all but assured, given the ruling coalition's majority and support from President Jose Mujica, who says he's convinced the global drug war is a failure and that state regulations can do a better job than weapons to contain addictions and defeat a thriving illegal market.
Former Health Minister Alfredo Solari, a Colorado Party senator, warned that children and adolescents will more easily get their hands on pot, and that "the effects of this policy on public health will be terrible."
But Sen. Roberto Conde, a former deputy foreign minister with the ruling Broad Front, said marijuana "is already established in Uruguay. It's a drug that is already seen as very low risk and enormously easy to get." Constanza Moreira, a fellow Broad Front senator, said, "This law will return us to the vanguard of Latin America."
"For many of us, today is an historic day. Many countries of Latin America, and many governments, will take this law as an example," she said.
Once the measure is approved, Uruguay's government would have 120 days to draft regulations imposing state control over the entire market for marijuana, from seed to smoke. Everyone involved would have to be licensed and registered, and government monitors would keep tabs to enforce limits, such as the 40 grams a month any adult will be able to buy at pharmacies for any reason.
Congress' lower house approved the bill in late July, and senators rejected all proposed amendments before Tuesday's debate, meaning Senate approval would send the law to Mujica for his signature.
The 78-year-old former leftist guerrilla, who was jailed for years while many in his generation experimented with marijuana, said his government sought to combat organized crime and reduce drug use. A government ad campaign launched Friday makes the same point, warning of pot smoking's dangers to human health.
"We think it's necessary to find a management strategy that controls and regulates consumption and production," Sen. Luis Gallo, a retired doctor, told The Associated Press before leading the Broad Front's presentation on Tuesday. "This is not liberalization of marijuana. It can be consumed within certain parameters established by law. I think it will reduce consumption."
Polls say two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose the plan, despite a national TV campaign and other lobbying efforts supporting the proposal funded by billionaire currency speculator and philanthropist George Soros and his Open Society Foundation and Drug Policy Alliance. Mujica explained what he called his "experiment" on marijuana legalization in private meetings in September with Soros and billionaire David Rockefeller, another drug war opponent.
The Soros connection has drawn some criticism in Uruguay.
"I would say to Mr. Soros, to Mr. Rockefeller, and to the president of the Republic that you don't experiment with the Uruguayans. We are not guinea pigs," Colorado Party Sen. Pedro Bordaberry said during Tuesday's debate.
Hannah Hetzer, a lobbyist for the Alliance, moved from Washington, D.C., to Montevideo for the campaign. She watched Tuesday's debate from a Senate gallery packed with international media and interest groups.
"For me, and for all of us who work in the world of drug reform, this day is historic," Hetzer said. "Uruguay is seeking an alternative to a failed model. I think that this is the beginning of the end of a prohibitionist model and the beginning of a more intelligent focus."
Before sending the proposal for a floor vote, the Senate's health committee heard earfuls from expert witnesses urging lawmakers to retreat.
Psychiatrists predicted a rise in mental illness. Pharmacists said selling pot alongside prescription drugs would harm their professional image. Teacher Nestor Pereira, representing the National Public Education Administration, said marijuana use leads to "educational failure, behavioral problems and depressive symptoms."
Nonetheless, Uruguay's drug czar, Julio Calzada, said his office is working hard so that rules will be in place by mid-April.
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, suffering repeated police raids and arrests. 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."
Michael Warren contributed to this story from Buenos Aires, Argentina.