Law enforcement, drug policy experts and consumers of illegal drugs have long speculated on the consequences, good or bad, if marijuana growth and use were simply legalized.
Uruguay, a South American nation of 3.4 million people tucked between Brazil and Argentina, is about to become the first country to find out on a national scale.
A bill, advocated by President Jose “Pepe” Mujica, that has passed Uruguay’s lower house and is expected to soon pass the Senate would, according to The Associated Press, make it “the first country in the world to license and enforce rules for the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for adult consumers.”
The local press reports that national drug czar Julio Calzada says sales should start in the second half of next year at a price of $1 a gram.
Some U.S. states, like Colorado, take a relaxed attitude toward the open sale of small amounts marijuana even though it is technically illegal under federal law. The Netherlands has legalized the consumption but not the cultivation of marijuana.
Under the proposed law, citizens can grow up to six plants in their homes and join cooperatives of up to 45 members to grow 99 plants for their own use.
Supposedly they can only sell the surplus to the government, which in turn will resell it to pharmacies, the only legal retail outlets. It will be illegal to sell to foreigners and children.
All of this sounds well-intentioned but difficult to enforce. Nonetheless, Sebastian Sabini, the lawmaker who pushed for the legalization bill, insists, “We’re going to set prices, limit what is produced, prohibit advertising. It’s planned and controlled and regulated by the state, where there are private players but the state sets the rules.”
The government hopes legalization will end marijuana smuggling, mainly from Paraguay, an illegal market estimated at $20 million to $30 million a year.
Marijuana smuggling is not Uruguay’s only drug problem. The U.S. State Department says Uruguayan drug police seized more than 1,400 pounds of cocaine in 2012 and more than 400 pounds of a cocaine base that goes by the street name of “pasta base.”
In addition to acting as a test case for national legalization of marijuana, Uruguay will also test another longstanding subject of drug policy debate: Will a free market in marijuana only push drug smugglers and dealers into smuggling and trafficking in more expensive, addictive and lethal kinds of drugs?