Youngsters wait outside the Parliament building (background) while lawmakers debate the bill legalizing marijuana, in Montevideo, on July 31, 2013.

Story highlights

Bill to legalize pot widely expected to pass in Tuesday vote

It would give Uruguayan government authority to regulate production and distribution

Supporters say it will put drug traffickers out of business

Opponents say it's dangerous because it will make more marijuana available

CNN  — 

Juan Andres Palese says he’s a frustrated entrepreneur. His business, the sale of products for growing and processing marijuana, has always been in a legal limbo in Uruguay, his country. Legally speaking, it’s a complicated and risky situation. Selling accessories for the cultivation of cannabis is legal, but the production, sale and distribution of marijuana are not.

“It would be fantastic,” Palese says, “if we could also have access to the market of consumers.”

The dream of the Montevideo resident is about to come true.

The Uruguayan Senate is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a controversial bill that would make the small South American country the first in Latin America to legalize marijuana.

The bill was approved by the lower house of parliament in July with 50 out of 96 votes. It also has the support of President Jose Mujica. The bill has generated international headlines because, if approved, the Uruguayan government would have the authority to regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana. The legislation also has the support of the Broad Front, Mujica’s party. Approval is widely expected.

“More than anything, it’s going to give me peace about growing what I like, which is marijuana. That’s what I like to consume. It would give me the peace of mind of not having legal troubles for something that should not be illegal,” Palese says.

The bill rests on the premise that if “the state assumes the control and regulation of the activities of importation and exportation, sowing, growing, harvesting, producing … storing, commercializing and distributing,” then the ills of drug trafficking would be greatly reduced and the quality of the plants improved, benefiting patients and putting drug traffickers out of business.

The bill would allow individuals to grow up to six plants of marijuana and possess as much as 480 grams for personal use. Marijuana clubs of anywhere from 15 to 45 members would also be allowed and granted permission to grow up to 99 plants at a time.

Users would have to register, and those claiming to use cannabis for medical reasons would have to show a doctor’s prescription. Marijuana would also be sold at licensed pharmacies.

But many in the traditionally Catholic country of 3.3 million people feel legislators are espousing the wrong policy for the wrong reasons. Alfredo Solari, an opposition senator from the Colorado Party, says making marijuana widely available has the potential to create even higher levels of addiction.

“It’s a very bad piece of legislation, mainly because it increases the availability of marijuana in the market. There will be a legal market that can be accessed by most Uruguayans. But there will also be a parallel illegal market for all of those who can’t get marijuana legally,” Solari said.

Proponents of the bill say the legislation addresses some of the concerns expressed by the opposition. For one, violators of the law would face sentences of 20 months to 10 years in prison. Those younger than 18 would not be allowed to use marijuana under any circumstances. The legislation also calls for mandatory classes in public schools aimed at drug prevention, and advertising of cannabis in any form would be strictly forbidden.

Luis Gallo, a senator with the Broad Front Party, which supports the bill, said current drug policy, which rests solely on law enforcement and prohibition, has produced no results.

“This is about regulating drugs. It’s doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for-all, but it doesn’t mean prohibition either. It means regulation has to work to reduce the risks and harmful effects of drug consumption,” Gallo said.

In an interview with CNN en Espanol, Mujica suggested in September that when it comes to drug trafficking, the trafficking part is usually more harmful than the drug itself, especially when it comes to marijuana.

“We would like to identify those who consume (marijuana), take them out of the shadows and offer to them a regulated opportunity to consume (the drug) so that they don’t have to depend on drug traffickers. We want to take away the market from drug traffickers by competing with them,” Mujica said.

Supporters of the bill launched a national campaign called “Responsible Regulation.” The campaign produced public service announcements in which a doctor, a mother and an attorney suggest it makes sense for Uruguayans to support the law.

Once the bill gains approval, there will be a 120-day period to give the government time to adopt regulations to implement the law.