Uruguayan President Jose Mujica quietly signed into law a bill legalizing marijuana Monday night, making his country of 3 million the first in the world to legalize, regulate and tax the drug.
Licensed pharmacies will not begin over-the-counter marijuana sales until April or later, but residents of the South American country are now allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants at home.
Uruguay's Senate approved the bill Dec. 10 in a 16-13 vote. Mujica pitched the reform as part of an anti-crime package, but signed it without much fanfare.
A spokesman for Mujica, Diego Canepa, told The Associated Press on Tuesday – Christmas Eve – the reform was signed into law.
The legislative victory in Uruguay may inspire similar measures across Latin America. Argentina's counter-narcotics chief, Juan Carlos Molina, who is also a Roman Catholic priest, told a local radio station after the Uruguay vote: "Argentina deserves a good debate about this. ... We have the capacity to do it. We should not underestimate ourselves." Leaders of at least one other Latin American country may be mulling the idea.
Guatemala's president, Otto Perez Molina, hailed it as "an important step," Agence France-Presse reported. Previously, during a Sept. 26 speech at the United Nations, Molina commended "the visionary decision of the citizens of the states of Colorado and Washington," who approved legalization ballot measures in November 2012.
The Wall Street Journal reports marijuana legalization bills are being drafted by legislators in Barbados, Belize Chile, Mexico City and Trinidad and Tobago. Many other countries have decriminalized the possession of marijuana for personal use.
"With a single signature, Mujica quietly started a trend that will revolutionize the way the world chooses to address substance use and abuse," said Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Executive Director Major Neill Franklin, in a statement. "Uruguay is now the first nation to legalize, regulate and control marijuana. It will not be the last."
Uruguay's legalization of marijuana, however, may be more tenuous than legalization in Colorado and Washington, where widespread public support was reflected in popular votes. Polls in Uruguay show a majority of residents may actually oppose the change.
A survey conducted by the Cifra polling agency in late 2012 showed 64 percent opposition and 26 percent support for legalization. Jorge Larranaga, a prospective conservative candidate in Uruguay's 2014 presidential election, says he will repeal the law if elected.
Another distinction from the U.S. measures is that Uruguay set the age limit for marijuana possession and use at 18. The two successful American ballot measures and all notable pending efforts in the U.S. set the age at 21.
It's currently unclear if Uruguay will face any international repercussions for legalizing marijuana.
Raymond Yans, president of the International Narcotics Control Board, a body that oversees compliance with U.N. anti-drug treaties, said Dec. 12 Uruguay lawmakers "knowingly decided to break the universally agreed and internationally endorsed legal provisions" contained in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
But Yans made similar warnings about Colorado and Washington state, and no consequences have been dealt to the U.S. In August the Department of Justice said it would not seek to prevent the opening of recreational marijuana stores in the two states – which are set to open in early 2014.
"The U.N. does have enforcement power," Kevin Sabet, a legalization opponent who advised the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations on drug policy, told U.S. News earlier this month. "So the ball is in their court. I think they need to make it clear that violating international law cannot be ignored."
As with the two American states that passed legalization measures, specific regulations for marijuana production and sales were not immediately addressed. Regulators have a deadline of April 9 to craft those rules.