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From seed to smoke, Uruguay testing legalized pot

Updated at: 12/11/2013 5:05 PM
By LEONARDO HABERKORN and MICHAEL WARREN

(AP) MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay - Uruguay’s drug control chief, Julio Calzada, is a nervous man.

As of Wednesday, he has just 120 days to deliver regulations controlling the world’s first national marijuana market.

President Jose Mujica’s goal is to drive drug traffickers out of the dope business and reduce consumption by creating a safe, legal and transparent environment in which the state closely monitors every aspect of marijuana use, from seed to smoke. That means designing and maintaining an industry that is small, contained and profitable.

Congress only approved Mujica’s grand "experiment" in broad strokes.

The fine print must strike a delicate balance on issues including what strength to allow for marijuana, what price to charge, who can farm it, how to crack down on illegal growers, how to persuade users to buy from the state instead of a dealer, and how to monitor use without being seen as Big Brother. If the rules are too lenient, or too strict, the whole project could fail.

QUALITY: To compete against illegal dealers, the licensed product has to offer a good high, but not so good that consumption explodes or other problems ensue. Calzada told the AP that pharmacies might sell varieties with between 5 percent and 15 percent of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive substance.

COST: Calzada said they might begin charging a dollar a gram, and raise or lower it in competition with illegal dealers. Opposition Sen. Jorge Larranaga said this could require subsidies, since in the Netherlands, a gram costs eight euros, more than 10 times as much. Calzada suggested legal pot can be grown much more cheaply in Uruguay.

SUPPLY: Calzada estimates that with fewer than 200,000 habitual smokers in the country of 3.3 million people, just 10 hectares (25 acres) could provide enough weed to complement marijuana produced by authorized pot-growing clubs and individuals licensed to grow a maximum of six plants at home. He said farmers have expressed interest, but how to choose them remains to be determined.

DEMAND: The goal is to persuade Uruguayan adults currently buying from illegal dealers to register with the state, and then crack down on illegal dealers and users. The registration process must be welcoming, and yet have built-in protections so the state can stop licensed users from reselling their legal pot to unregistered friends or even visiting tourists.

CLONING: To crack down on illegal supplies, licensed product must be identifiable. Mujica’s wife, Sen. Lucia Topolansky, told the AP the state would provide cloned seeds whose plants can be traced. Opponents said that once license holders grow the allowed six plants at home, tracing legal weed may be impossible. Calzada said he’s studying the problem.

MONITORING: Too much government intervention and people won’t sign up for legal highs. Too little and the market could quickly spin out of control. Socialist Deputy Julio Bango, who co-authored the law, says they’re drawing on the state of Colorado’s experience for these logistics.

Mujica acknowledged that his government isn’t "totally prepared," but said the global drug war has clearly failed.

"Einstein said that there’s nothing more absurd than trying to change the results by always repeating the same formula. That’s why we want to try other methods," he said in an interview published Wednesday in the newspaper La Republica. "We know we’ve started down a road where there’s no university to tell us what to do. But we have to try, because there’s no blind man worse than the one who doesn’t want to see."

Senators gave the plan its final congressional approval Tuesday night despite warnings by the U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board that it violates a treaty signed by Uruguay limiting the legal use of cannabis and other narcotics to medical and scientific purposes.

Venezuela’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, on Wednesday called it an "audacious" and "innovative" move that his government will be closely evaluating as it’s implemented.

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Associated Press writer Leonardo Haberkorn reported this story in Montevideo and Michael Warren reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)