But Julio Rey is eagerly preparing for the day when he and his friends can form a cannabis club to grow marijuana in the lot next to his home in this sleepy farming town 60 miles north of the capital, Montevideo.
“To be a grower, once this is up and running, will be something like being a sommelier,” said Rey, 38, who already has eight budding plants he lovingly tends in two specially lighted cabinets.
Under a bill approved by the lower house of the General Assembly and facing a Senate vote in weeks, Uruguayans will be able to grow up to six plants in their homes. Cooperatives of up to 45 members will be able to cultivate up to 99 plants for their own use.
Growers in places such as this rural town would also likely produce for the larger market, selling their harvest to the government. The drug would be supplied to pharmacies, the only retail outlets allowed to sell to individual buyers. Users will have to sign up in a federal registry, and it will be illegal to sell pot to children or foreigners.
“This proposal is in line with Uruguayan culture and the role the state has historically had in regulating social vice,” said Sebastián Sabini, a lawmaker who led the campaign for the bill. “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.”
What the government of President José “Pepe” Mujica is advocating — which will surely become law because of his movement’s comfortable majority in the Senate — will make this country of just 3.4 million people a trailblazer. Under Mujica, a 78-year-old former guerrilla, Uruguay has adopted a raft of liberal policies on issues from same-sex marriage to abortion.
The Uruguay proposal is similar to the law in one U.S. state, Colorado, where users will soon be able to buy marijuana at licensed stores and grow a small amount at home. And the Netherlands long ago legalized consumption, with smokers enjoying joints in special cafes. But cultivation there is banned, and no other country has moved to make the production and mass distribution of marijuana legal.
Julio Calzada, director of the government’s National Drug Board, said the objective is to dismantle a black market that has been supplying Uruguay’s 25,000 habitual users with cheap marijuana smuggled in from Paraguay. Although this country is among the safest in the region, it has seen a slight spike in homicides and robberies that has generated a perception of insecurity among Uruguayans.