Uruguay close to becoming first country to legalize marketplace for marijuana

Uruguayan legislators participate in a debate before voting on a bill that regulates marijuana growth and sale advances, in Montevideo July 31, 2013. Uruguay's lower house of Congress voted on Wednesday to create a government body to control the cultivation and sale of marijuana and allow residents to grow it at home or as part of smoking clubs. Andres Stapff, Reuters

Uruguay has moved one important step closer to becoming the first country to have a legal, government regulated marijuana industry — but the president warns stoner tourists shouldn't light up in celebration just yet.

Fifty members of Uruguay’s lower house of Congress late Wednesday voted in favor creating a government entity — the National Cannabis Institute, which would monitor the cultivation and sales of marijuana. Forty-six members voted against the bill, which is heavily backed by Uruguay’s leftist president, Jose Mujica.

However, on Thursday, Mujica insisted that Uruguay would not become a tourism destination for pot smokers. If the measure is passed by the senate later this year, only Uruguayans will be allowed to legally smoke weed in the country.

"No one should think implementing this law would create disorder or encourage consumption,” he said.

Under the bill, Uruguayan households would be allowed to grow up to six plants (about 17 ounces) annually. Regulated public smoking clubs would be permitted to grow 90 plants (15.8 pounds) each year.

Currently, residents of Uruguay are permitted to smoke marijuana, but they cannot grow it or sell it, which is contradictory and promotes crime, drug-smuggling and “a monopoly of the mafia," according to Mujica, a former guerilla fighter.

According to polls, 63 percent of Uruguayans actually oppose the proposal to legalize the growth and distribution of the drug. Critics believe legalizing marijuana further might serve as a gateway for citizens to use harder drugs.

A man smokes marijuana outside the Uruguayan Congress where lawmakers debated a bill on Wednesday to legalize marijuana and regulate production and distribution. Matilde Campodonico, AP

"Ninety-eight percent of those who are today destroying themselves with base cocaine began with marijuana … I have the sensation that we're playing with fire," said opposing Congressman Gerardo Amarilla.

Members of Uruguay's congress debated for 16 hours before passing the bill, but Mujica argued, “Nowhere in the world has repression yielded results. ... We know we are embarking on a cutting-edge experiment for the whole world."

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S. Drug Policy Alliance, said, "Sometimes small countries do great things. Uruguay's bold move … provides a model for legally regulating marijuana that other countries, and U.S. states, will want to consider — and a precedent that will embolden others to follow in their footsteps.”

In November, Colorado and Washington legalized the recreational use of marijuana on the state level, but the federal government has already raided some dispensaries.

Mujica meanwhile says he's never actually tried the stuff.

“I'm old — I've had the vice of smoking (cigarettes) and a drink now and then, but never in my life have I tried a joint," said Mujica, 78.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.