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Marijuana: Experimenting in Uruguay

A marijuana grower inspects his crop in Uruguay Wednesday.
A marijuana grower inspects his crop in Uruguay Wednesday.(Associated Press)

Uruguay recently became the first country to make recreational marijuana use legal for adults, putting in place a system to regulate sales, production, and consumption. Whatever one thinks of legalization of marijuana, this could be a useful experiment for US leaders and law enforcement officials to watch.

A number of states have adopted measures to relax their blanket bans on marijuana. Massachusetts voters, among others, have decriminalized the drug and allowed consumption for medical purposes; Colorado and Washington state have voted to legalize it outright. Yet because these measures exist alongside a strong federal prohibition, their effects on abuse patterns and public safety are difficult to assess.

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Adults living in Uruguay will be able to purchase up to 40 grams per month at their local pharmacy or grow up to six plants for personal consumption. President Jose Mujica, who championed the controversial bill, insists that making marijuana legal will take profits away from drug cartels . Critics counter that the new law will inevitably lead to higher use of marijuana, and perhaps of more addictive drugs.

For American policy makers, the details of how Uruguay sets up its marijuana trade should be informative. How will sales be taxed? Where will additional revenues be employed? Will law enforcement save money? Until now, the relative lack of variation in marijuana laws from jurisdiction to jurisdiction has hampered informed debate on the subject. Uruguay will help fill in that gap.