A United Nations narcotics body on Thursday expressed alarm about a bill passed by Uruguay’s Lower House that would legalize marijuana.
“Such a law would be in complete contravention to the provisions of the international drug control treaties, in particular the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, to which Uruguay is a party,” the International Narcotics Control Board said in a statement issued hours after the bill was passed in Uruguay’s lower house.
The controversial bill needs to be approved by the Senate before it becomes law. If that happens because the ruling coalition has a majority, Uruguay would be the first country where the state was in charge of producing and distributing pot.
The INCB, an independent body of experts set up by the UN to monitor countries’ compliance with international drug treaties, said the legislation could have “serious consequences for the health and welfare of the population and for the prevention of cannabis abuse among the youth.”
It urged authorities to “carefully consider all possible repercussions” before taking a final decision.
The bill was approved late Wednesday by 50 of 96 lawmakers present following more than thirteen hours of heated debate. The vote was clearly on party lines with the ruling coalition supporting the initiative and the opposition rejecting it.
Marijuana use has doubled in the last ten years in Uruguay which has a population of 3.4 million. An estimated 22 tons of marijuana are sold annually in the country according to Uruguay’s National Drugs Committee.
The government of President Jose Mujica, a former guerrilla leader and flower farmer has defended the measure arguing the global war on drugs has failed and it is worth trying a different approach. However he has in the past repeatedly said he would not send the bill unless there was a clear support from public opinion.
The Uruguayan government argues that by bringing the sale of cannabis under state control, it will remove profits from drug dealers and divert users from harder drugs. Under the terms of the bill: State would control the production, distribution, commerce and consumption of marijuana; consumers have to be over 18 and registered; marijuana to be sold at licensed pharmacies; sales are limited to 40g (1.4oz) per month; registered users can grow up to six plants at home.
The regulation is not to promote consumption; consumption already exists, said lawmaker Sebastian Sabini. But Gerardo Amarilla of the opposition National Party said the government was playing with fire given the health risks he said were linked to marijuana use.
Opposition lawmakers have said that even if the law makes it through the senate, they will launch a petition to have it overturned with a national referendum. A survey carried out before the vote by polling organisation Cifra suggested 63% of Uruguayans opposed the bill.
The bill is highly controversial even in the ruling coalition. The decisive vote from the majority in the Lower House, Dario Perez said he voted in solidarity with the political group and his fellow lawmakers but “marijuana with or without a bill is dung: it’s an enemy of students, of workers, of the family”.
Former president Tabare Vazquez, an oncologist by training and the ruling coalition’s most probable candidate for the 2014 election has stated all along he rejects point blank the marijuana bill on “medical and ethical” grounds and left the door open for a possible derogation if he runs and is elected.
The INCB said it was interested in maintaining a dialogue with the government of Uruguay on this issue, but also regretted that the administration of President Mujica refused to receive an INCB mission before the draft law was submitted to Parliament for deliberation.
The vote comes amid fierce debate about drug legalisation in Latin America.
A group of former presidents and influential social figures, including Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo and Colombian ex-leader Cesar Gaviria, have called for marijuana to be legalised and regulated.
But only last week, Pope Francis criticised drug legalisation plans during a visit to Brazil. Speaking at the inauguration of a clinic for drug addicts in Rio de Janeiro, he said it was necessary to tackle the problems which are at the root of drug abuse, promoting more justice, educating the youth with the values that live in society, standing by those who face hardship and giving them hope for the future.
Mujica argues that bringing the sale of cannabis under state control will remove profits from drug dealers and divert users from harder drugs