The government of Uruguay makes Scotch whisky. It also makes and sells rum, vodka and cognac, and has done so for nearly a century. Many people consider this sideline of the state to be an historical accident – a wasteful and even eccentric contradiction.
But President Jose Mujica says Uruguay’s long experience at the centre of the nation’s liquor business makes it more than capable of dominating another substance: marijuana.
Final Senate approval of Uruguay’s marijuana law is expected by late September, and the government plans to license growers, sellers and users as quickly as possible thereafter to protect them from criminal drug traffickers, ruling party Senator Lucia Topolansky, who is also Uruguay’s first lady, told The Associated Press in an interview.
The law specifically creates a legal marijuana monopoly, making the government alone responsible for importing, producing, obtaining, storing, commercialising, and distributing a drug still considered illegal around the world.
A state entity will license producers and control marijuana’s distribution and sale through the same neighborhood pharmacies that sell prescription medicines and toothpaste. Purchases by licensed users will be limited to 40 grams a month.
Pot-growing cooperatives will be encouraged, using government-approved seeds, and people registered with the state will be able to grow up to six plants at home for personal use, as long as they harvest no more than 480 grams a year.
The project passed the House by just one vote, and while the ruling Broad Front coalition has an easier majority in the Senate, Mujica has been campaigning actively for its passage, reminding Uruguayans that their government has been controlling the market for addictive substances ever since the beginning of the 20th century, when President Jose Batlle y Ordonez wanted the state to monopolise alcohol production.
“Don Jose Batlle y Ordonez had courage,” Mujica said in one of his folksy nationwide radio talks, which sound much like the “fireside chats” that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to broadcast to Americans.
“The state grabbed it and made a monopoly of alcohol, because it couldn’t stop the booze, and he said “at least don’t poison the people – the booze should be good.”
Batlle y Ordonez was ahead of his time in promoting social change in Latin America, from the separation of church and state to the eight-hour workday and maternity leave. And he had several goals for alcohol: He wanted the whisky to generate government revenues and guarantee a profit stream for farmers, funding the production of a national fuel so that Uruguay’s cars and trucks wouldn’t need imported gasoline.
By LEONARDO HABERKORN
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