Uruguay Congress set to vote on marijuana legalization

Uruguay's lower house is to vote on a controversial bill which for the first time would put a government in charge of production and distribution of legal marijuana.

If approved, the bill, unveiled in June 2012 as part of a series of measures to combat rising violence, will head to the Senate for final passage.

"The regulation is not meant to promote consumption, consumption already exists," lawmaker Sebastian Sabini, who helped draft the legislation, said at the beginning of the session.

NGO workers favoring regulation of legal marijuana filed into the chamber's visitors' galleries as lawmakers emphasized that the drug business "finances organized crime" and that "marijuana use has doubled in the last 10 years" in the small, mostly rural South American country of 3.4 million.

President Jose Mujica's government has backed the bill. He is a doctor by training and a leftist.

A long debate is expected in the lower house, where the president's left-leaning Frente Amplio (FA) party has a narrow majority.

Doubts remained as to the bill's passage as one key FA lawmaker threatened to vote against the measure. The legislation is rejected by all opposition parties.

The measure specifies that the government would assume control and regulation of the importation, planting, cultivation, harvesting, production, acquisition, storage, marketing and distribution of marijuana and its derivatives.

After registering, users would be able to cultivate up to six plants, gain access to the drug as part of a marijuana-growing club or purchase up to 40 grams per month at a dispensary.

Gerardo Amarilla of the opposition National Party enumerated marijuana's effects on health and said the project was "playing with fire."

"We will not end the black market," the lawmaker said.

Richard Sander of the opposition Colorado Party played an anti-legalization video of ex-addict testimony, adding that the government plan was full of "ad-libbing."

According to a survey released this week, fully 63 percent of people in Uruguay are against the government's plan.

Under current law, possession of marijuana for personal use is permitted in Uruguay. Judges however can determine what quantity is considered appropriate for personal use.

Many Uruguayans are concerned the law will make foreign tourists think the country is a great place to unwind with marijuana or something stronger.

Uruguay's National Drug Board (JND) has said that the country is home to approximately 20,000 daily marijuana users and some 120,000 total consumers.

The JND estimated that the country sells approximately 22 tons of marijuana, generating between $30 and $40 million per year.

The legislative debate comes one year after the measure was floated by the government. In recent months it has given rise to public debate and a media campaign.

"It's a change we've been waiting for, and it fixes the hypocrisy in the previous law," Juan Vaz, a spokesman for the Association of Cannabis Studies told AFP. He thinks that official figures on consumption are not correct and estimated the number of regular users as closer to 200,000.

The fact that marijuana would be sold in pharmacies has given rise to resistance by pharmacists.

"We disagree with the sale of an abusable drug in a pharmacy, which is considered a health center," Virginia Olmos, president of the Association of Chemists and Pharmacists of Uruguay told AFP.