Latin America & Caribbean

Uruguay's cannabis bill reflects liberal past

A man shows a cannabis sativa plant in Montevideo on 7 December, 2012.
Image caption The marijuana bill is the latest liberal reform pushed by the president

Historically, Uruguay has been a liberal country with a solid track record of reform.

It declared itself a secular state in 1917.

In 1913, it became the first in the region to grant divorces to women who requested them. In 1927, it introduced the vote for women.

"It is probably right to say that Uruguay has been traditionally a more liberal country than the rest of the region," Uruguayan pollster and political analyst Ignacio Zuasnabar says.

But even so, many Uruguayans have been taken by surprise by a series of liberal reforms passed in the last two years.

Over this time, Congress approved same sex-marriages, abortions, and now, late on Wednesday, the lower house passed a draft bill legalising cannabis.

If the Senate approves it, as is expected, Uruguay would become the first country in the world to regulate cannabis production, guarantee its quality, set its price and tax the revenues.

It would also allow people to grow up to six plants of cannabis in their homes.

The government says the aim is to stop people going to buy cannabis from drug traffickers and to put an end to a recent wave of violent crime associated with illegal drugs.

In a BBC interview last year, President Jose Mujica said: "We are not so much worried about the drugs. What really worries us is drug trafficking."

Uruguay is also among the few countries in Latin America to allow abortions beyond cases of rape, incest or threats to a woman's health.

And while President Mujica says he does not like abortions, he is convinced the law "will enable us to save more lives" by preventing women from having back-street abortions which are blamed for hundreds of deaths each year.


Image caption In April Uruguay became the second country in Latin America to allow gay marriage

The Uruguayan leader has acknowledged that despite the country's liberal history, it is still difficult for many to come to terms with these reforms.

"There is still a lot of prejudice, especially with regards to drugs," he says.

According to recent opinion polls, Uruguayans have shown to be more open to decriminalising abortion and legalising same-sex marriage than they are towards this new cannabis bill.

At least two-thirds of the population are against the legalisation of marijuana, the latest poll suggests.

Opposition politicians are demanding a referendum, arguing the decision to legalise marijuana should be left to the people of Uruguay.

With a clear majority in the Senate, pro-government MPs are confident the bill will sail through the upper house and become law by the end of this year.

But drug legalisation still triggers resistance from many Uruguayans, sometimes in contradiction with their own liberal values.

Anthropologist Daniel Vidart, author of a study on Uruguayan identity, told the BBC that the country values its liberal traditions, which date back to a raft of social reforms introduced by President Jose Batlle y Ordonez a century ago.

But according to Mr Vidart, there are also "staunch conservative sectors" which constantly challenge liberal reforms.

The difficulty is being able to separate rhetoric from the will of the people.

"But we still need to think how much demagoguery is there, and how much it reflects what the people want," he says.

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