Last fall, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica proposed legalizing marijuana commerce and cultivation (marijuana possession has never been a crime there), but shortly thereafter postponed action on the proposed legislation in the face of public opposition. Now he's ready for the country to have a discussion about it.
[image:1 align:right]In December, Mujica postponed action on the bill, even though his party and its allies control the legislature. He cited polling that showed 64% of the public had reservations about allowing pot sales and cultivation.
Mujica continues to support the bill, but wanted to slow the process down to educate the public. Now, that process is beginning. Starting on April 4, a nationwide dialog on the bill is set to get underway. The three-month public debate will feature round tables, seminars, and conferences across the country and, Mujica hopes, bring public opinion around.
Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla in the 1970s, has argued that legalizing the commerce in marijuana would weaken drug smuggling gangs and fight petty crime. Uruguay is one of the safest Latin American nations, but has been scarred by criminal violence associated with the drug trade.
The bill would create a National Cannabis Institute to regulate commercial marijuana production and distribution. But unlike reports from last fall, it will not create state marijuana stores. The Institute would also come up with penalties for rule-breakers and help design programs to warn of the risks of pot smoking. For private households, the bill would allow the cultivation of up to six plants and the possession of up to 17 ounces.
If the bill becomes law, Uruguay would become the first country to formally legalize marijuana commerce. Such commerce had gone on in Holland for decades, with the laws against it still on the books, but ignored under the Dutch policy of "pragmatic tolerance." Other countries have decriminalized marijuana possession, but not the commerce.
The Maryland House of Delegates Monday approved a bill that would allow academic medical centers to provide medical marijuana to patients whose doctors recommend it. The measure passed easily on a 108-28 vote and is expected to pass the Senate as well.
[image:1 align:left]The bill, House Bill 1101, would set up a medical marijuana commission to which the centers could apply for permission to administer marijuana to patients within a research-focused program. Marijuana would be grown either by state-licensed growers or by the federal government.
Sponsored by Del. Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore), the bill would require the academic medical centers to specify qualifying medical conditions for treatment; treatment duration and dosage; where marijuana would be obtained; sources of funding; and a plan for monitoring data and outcomes, among other things. Programs would initially be approved for one year but could be extended.
"People who use medical marijuana to treat illnesses like cancer and multiple sclerosis shouldn't have to resort to the illicit market to obtain doctor-recommended medicine," said Dan Riffle, deputy director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, which has worked with legislators in Annapolis to move the bill. "States around the nation are successfully implementing programs that provide patients with safe, legal, and reliable access to medical marijuana."
While the bill has its problems -- it doesn't let patients grow their own, it would take years to implement and would either require federal cooperation or the centers to violate federal law -- it is a start, and can amended down the road if it proves unworkable.
"It may take several years for a program to get up and running, and federal policy presents a substantial obstacle to a law like this one ever being fully implemented," Riffle said. "Still, this bill gives us hope that patients could have safe, reliable access through programs that bear the imprimatur of some of the country’s most respected medical institutions."
Along with New England and the West, the Middle Atlantic region is one of the most medical marijuana-friendly in the country. If the bill passes the state Senate and is signed into law, Maryland will join neighbors Delaware and New Jersey as medical marijuana states, as well as Washington, DC, where the first dispensaries are set to open next month.