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Uruguay set to legalise marijuana

Uruguay has moved a step closer to becoming the first country in the world to create a legal marijuana industry in an attempt to fight organised crime.

The lower house of congress voted 50-46 for the measure after 13 hours of passionate debate. The plan now goes to the senate, where passage is expected to license and regulate the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for adults.

Ruling coalition MPs argued that it was worth trying because the global war on drugs had been a costly and bloody failure. But critics warn that marijuana is a gateway drug and that fostering the market is playing with fire.

Supporters hope to eliminate a legal contradiction in Uruguay, where it is permitted to consume pot but against the law to sell, buy, produce or possess even one marijuana plant.

The vote in the house, where the ruling Broad Front coalition had a 50-49 majority, was seen as the best chance for opponents to block the law. It next goes to the senate, where the government has a more comfortable majority.

The plan changed little in the six months after President Jose Mujica postponed voting to give supporters more time to rally public opinion. However, recent polls said two-thirds of Uruguayans remained opposed despite a "responsible regulation" campaign for the Bill.

Dozens of pro-marijuana activists followed the debate from balconies overlooking the house floor while others outside held signs and danced to reggae music.

"This law consecrates a reality that already exists: the marijuana sales market has existed for a long time, but illegally, buying it from traffickers, and in having plants in your house for which you can be thrown in jail," said Camilo Collazo, a 25-year-old anthropology student. "We want to put an end to this, to clean up and normalise the situation."

Governing coalition deputy Sebastian Sabini said "without a doubt it would be a surprise if this proposal doesn't pass, since it's already been agreed to within all the sectors of the Broad Front".

Uruguay's government would license growers, sellers and consumers, and update a confidential registry to keep people from buying more than 40 grams a month. Carrying, growing or selling pot without a licence could bring prison terms, but licensed consumers could grow up to six plants at a time at home.

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