Montevideo, Uruguay — The tiny Latin American country of Uruguay just leapfrogged every nation on Earth, becoming the world’s first sovereign nation to legalize the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana.
The country’s new law, dubbed a national “experiment” by Uruguay president Jose Mujica, will be watched closely by legalization advocates around the world.
But what’s so special about Uruguay’s new law? Is it really so different from legalization efforts in Colorado and elsewhere? And is this country of 3 million people really so much more progressive than the Centennial State, home to almost twice as many people?
In a word, yes.
Being a country is a big deal, and Uruguay’s law goes a few places Colorado doesn’t. Here are five ways Uruguay’s law goes further than Colorado’s and one way it doesn’t:
This is a country, not a state: The big difference between Uruguay’s legalization movement and Colorado’s is pretty simple: Whereas Coloradans will have to contend with a federal government that still considers marijuana entirely illegal, Uruguayans don’t have any such worries. Within the borders of this country, pot’s legal, and cannabis consumers won’t have to be looking over their shoulders in case there’s a federal cop watching.
The country is going to sanction farmers to grow weed: Yep, Uruguay plans to hand out licenses to cultivators, who will then grow vast amounts of cannabis, to be sold in pharmacies across the nation. This differs from Colorado’s law, which paves the way for recreational marijuana sales and will license dispensaries to grow their own product, but doesn’t set up a national system of cultivation and distribution.
You can smoke marijuana practically anywhere in Uruguay: Indeed, marijuana use has been legal in Uruguay for decades. At December’s vote in the national Senate, crowds of supporters of the new law blazed up on the parliament steps, in full view of the police. Under the new law, Uruguay’s pot smokers will be allowed to light up anywhere that tobacco is legal. That’s very different to Colorado’s law, which has a long and extensive list of places you can’t consume cannabis, including pretty much any public place.
Coloradans can only possess one ounce of marijuana: OK, this isn’t completely cut-and-dry, since medical marijuana users can still possess two ounces, and home growers can harvest in excess of one ounce, but Coloradans can’t walk around with more than one ounce of weed in their pockets. Uruguayans, however, are allowed to possess 40 grams, or about 1.4 ounces, at any one time.
Cities in Uruguay probably can’t ban pot: In Colorado, as in other states that have legalized medical marijuana, much of the debate over restrictions to marijuana access is likely to happen at the local level. Cities will be free to use zoning laws to limit availability of weed within their boundaries. This will need to be hashed out (no pun intended) in Uruguay over the next few months, but there’s little in the law about allowing local cities to bar use of or access to weed.
The big way Colorado’s law is more liberal: In Uruguay, only residents will be allowed to grow, posses and smoke marijuana. This is a big issue here, and the president has vowed that his little country won’t become a cannabis tourist destination. Residents will have to show their state-issued ID to buy marijuana in Uruguay. In Colorado, however, visitors to the state (including Uruguayan tourists) will be allowed to purchase up to a quarter-ounce of marijuana per day. That’s less than the locals, but at least it’s something.