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Uruguayan pot marketplace may go up in smoke

Uruguay’s plan to create the world’s first national, government-regulated marketplace for legal pot may be going up in smoke.

Delays in implementing the plan are putting it at risk as polls point to opposition gains in October’s election and say most Uruguayans oppose a legal pot marketplace. Opposition politicians have said they will seek to repeal or modify the legislation, which gives the national government power to oversee the production, sales and consumption of marijuana.

“I am convinced that the current project is never going to be applied,” the principal opposition presidential candidate, Luis Lacalle Pou, told The Associated Press. “The entire project is not workable. The pharmacies don’t want to sell the drug and nobody is going to register as a user, as the law obliges.”

The legislation, which went into effect in May, allows for the growing of pot by licensed individuals, the formation of growers and users clubs, the sale by pharmacies of 40 grams of pot a month to registered users and the tracking of legally grown marijuana through a system of genetic markers of authorized plants.

President Jose Mujica and his Broad Front movement have promoted the plan as a way to deal with rising homicide and crime rates associated with drug trafficking and the increasing use of crack cocaine. In the last 13 years, the homicide rate in Uruguay has increased by 21 percent and the rate of violent robbery by 250 percent. Officials say a legal pot market could provide an alternative to crack and reduce the power of drug gangs.

“The appearance of drug trafficking signified a brutal cultural change in the world of crime and a nearly absolute disregard for the value of life,” Mujica told the AP in May. “So we decided to try to snatch away a part of that market.”

It wasn’t until late July, almost three months after the pot law went into effect, that the government made its first call for applications from those interested in growing pot for the legal market. It said after registration closes Aug. 18, bidders will be winnowed to a short list of candidates, from which up to five will be chosen to get a license for legal cultivation.

Officials have given conflicting dates for when the drug might reach pharmacies, ranging from late this year to sometime in 2015.

Experts say the delays are due to the fact that no other country has attempted such a plan and that authorities still lack detailed plans and rules for creating the market. Disagreements within the government over basic aspects of the proposal are also holding things back.

Opposition Colorado Party presidential candidate Pedro Bordaberry said, “The entire project is one big improvisation.”

The man in charge of the program, Julio Calzada, has dismissed concerns, insisting the bids to select growers will be a success “and the project will go forward.”

While Mujica’s marijuana plan was widely applauded globally and seen as going beyond marijuana legislation in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington, most Uruguayans oppose it. The most recent poll said only 27 percent of Uruguayans surveyed approve of the law and 64 percent oppose it. Sixty-two percent said they want the law repealed. The survey by the polling firm Cifra questioned 1,001 people between July 4 and 15 and had an error margin of three percentage points.

“People are against drugs and don’t distinguish between them,” said Adriana Raga, director of Cifra. “For a small, educated sector — very small — marijuana is something special. But for the great majority of Uruguayans, all drugs are bad and marijuana is another bad drug, the same as base (cocaine) paste.”

With elections nearing, politicians are paying heed to public opinion. The top opposition candidates are supporting repeal or modification of the law.

Polls indicate a tight race in October congressional and presidential elections between the Broad Front and the opposition. None of the seven presidential candidates appears capable of getting enough votes to win outright in the first round. That would set up a runoff on the last Sunday in November between the two top vote-getters.

For the law to be out of peril, the Broad Front has to win both the presidency and a majority in congress, which it currently barely controls.

“The data that we now have does not show this is happening,” said Raga of Cifra. “There are still three months of campaigning to go, but as of today it is not our hypothesis.”

Uruguay’s main polling companies say around 40 percent of Uruguayans intend to vote for the leftist governing coalition, which would need almost 50 percent to keep its grip on the legislature.

Lacalle Pou, who is second in the presidential race, has said he would try to repeal the articles of the law that allow for the sale of marijuana in pharmacies. Other factions in his conservative National Party want to overturn the law altogether.

Even the far-left Popular Unity coalition has said its legislators might oppose the legislation if they are elected.

“Commercialization (of marijuana) by the state is the wrong road to take,” said Pablo Mieres, presidential candidate for the fourth-place Independent Party. “Decriminalization is a road that has to be taken on the international level. A country can’t do it alone.”

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US drug policy fuels push for legal pot worldwide

In a former colonial mansion in Jamaica, politicians huddle to discuss trying to ease marijuana laws in the land of the late reggae musician and cannabis evangelist Bob Marley.

In Morocco, one of the world’s top producers of the concentrated pot known as hashish, two leading political parties want to legalize its cultivation, at least for medical and industrial use.

And in Mexico City, the vast metropolis of a country ravaged by horrific cartel bloodshed, lawmakers have proposed a brand new plan to let stores sell the drug.

From the Americas to Europe to North Africa and beyond, the marijuana legalization movement is gaining unprecedented traction — a nod to successful efforts in Colorado, Washington state and the small South American nation of Uruguay, which in December became the first country to approve nationwide pot legalization.

Leaders long weary of the drug war’s violence and futility have been emboldened by changes in U.S. policy, even in the face of opposition from their own conservative populations. Some are eager to try an approach that focuses on public health instead of prohibition, and some see a potentially lucrative industry in cannabis regulation.

“A number of countries are saying, ‘We’ve been curious about this, but we didn’t think we could go this route,’” said Sam Kamin, a University of Denver law professor who helped write Colorado’s marijuana regulations. “It’s harder for the U.S. to look at other countries and say, ‘You can’t legalize, you can’t decriminalize,’ because it’s going on here.”

That’s due largely to a White House that’s more open to drug war alternatives.

U.S. President Barack Obama recently told The New Yorker magazine that he considers marijuana less dangerous to consumers than alcohol, and said it’s important that the legalization experiments in Washington and Colorado go forward, especially because blacks are arrested for the drug at a greater rate than whites, despite similar levels of use.

His administration also has criticized drug war-driven incarceration rates in the U.S. and announced that it will let banks do business with licensed marijuana operations, which have largely been cash-only because federal law forbids financial institutions from processing pot-related transactions.

Such actions underscore how the official U.S. position has changed in recent years. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it wouldn’t target medical marijuana patients. In August, the agency said it wouldn’t interfere with the laws in Colorado and Washington, which regulate the growth and sale of taxed pot for recreational use.

Government officials and activists worldwide have taken note of the more open stance. Also not lost on them was the Obama administration’s public silence before votes in both states and in Uruguay. 

It all creates a “sense that the U.S. is no longer quite the drug war-obsessed government it was” and that other nations have some political space to explore reform, said Ethan Nadelmann, head of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-legalization group based in New York.

Anxiety over U.S. reprisals has previously doused reform efforts in Jamaica, including a 2001 attempt to approve private use of marijuana by adults. Given America’s evolution, “the discussion has changed,” said Delano Seiveright, director of Ganja Law Reform Coalition-Jamaica.

Last summer eight lawmakers, evenly split between the ruling People’s National Party and the opposition Jamaica Labor Party, met with Nadelmann and local cannabis crusaders at a luxury hotel in Kingston’s financial district and discussed next steps, including a near-term effort to decriminalize pot possession.

Officials are concerned about the roughly 300 young men each week who get criminal records for possessing small amounts of “ganja.” Others in the debt-shackled nation worry about losing out on tourism dollars: For many, weed is synonymous with Marley’s home country, where it has long been used as a medicinal herb by families, including as a cold remedy, and as a spiritual sacrament by Rastafarians.

Influential politicians are increasingly taking up the idea of loosening pot restrictions. Jamaica’s health minister recently said he was “fully on board” with medical marijuana.

“The cooperation on this issue far outweighs what I’ve seen before,” Seiveright said. “Both sides are in agreement with the need to move forward.”

In Morocco, lawmakers have been inspired by the experiments in Washington, Colorado and Uruguay to push forward their longstanding desire to allow cannabis to be grown for medical and industrial uses. They say such a law would help small farmers who survive on the crop but live at the mercy of drug lords and police attempts to eradicate it.

“Security policies aren’t solving the problem because it’s an economic and social issue,” said Mehdi Bensaid, a legislator with the Party of Authenticity and Modernity, a political party closely allied with the country’s king. “We think this crop can become an important economic resource for Morocco and the citizens of this region.”

In October, lawmakers from Uruguay, Mexico and Canada converged on Colorado for a firsthand look at how that state’s law is being implemented. They toured a medical marijuana dispensary and sniffed bar-coded marijuana plants as the dispensary’s owner gave them a tour.

There’s no general push to legalize marijuana in Mexico, where tens of thousands have died in cartel violence in recent years. But in liberal Mexico City, legislators last week introduced a measure to let stores sell up to 5 grams of pot. It’s supported by the mayor but could set up a fight with the conservative federal government.

“Rather than continue fighting a war that makes no sense, now we are joining a cutting-edge process,” said Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister.

Opponents to legalization worry that pot could become heavily commercialized or that increased access will increase youth use. They say the other side’s political victories have reawakened their cause.

“There’s been a real hunger from people abroad to find out how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place and how to avoid it,” said Kevin Sabet of Project Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Washington and Colorado passed recreational laws in 2012 to regulate the growth and sale of taxed pot at state-licensed stores. Sales began Jan. 1 in Colorado, and are due to start later this year in Washington. Twenty states and the District of Columbia already have medical marijuana laws.

A number of U.S. states are considering whether to try for recreational laws. Voters in Alaska will have their say on a legalization measure this summer. Oregon voters could also weigh in this year, and in California, drug-reform groups are deciding whether to push a ballot measure in 2014 or wait until 2016’s presidential election. Abroad, activists are pushing the issue before a United Nations summit in 2016.

While some European countries, including Spain, Belgium and the Czech Republic, have taken steps over the years to liberalize pot laws in the face of international treaties that limit drug production to medical and research purposes, the Netherlands, famous for its pot “coffee shops,” has started to pull back, calling on cities to close shops near schools and ban sales to tourists.

There is, however, an effort afoot to legitimize the growing of cannabis sold in the coffee shops. While it’s been legal to sell pot, it’s not to grow it, so shops must turn to the black market for their supply, which may wind up seized in a raid.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, where some countries have decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, from cocaine to marijuana, there is significant public opposition to further legalization. But top officials are realizing that it is nevertheless on the table, despite the longstanding efforts of the U.S., which has provided billions of dollars to support counter-narcotics work in the hemisphere.

Current or former presidents in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil have called for a re-evaluation of or end to the drug war, a chorus echoed by Argentina’s drug czar, Juan Carlos Molina, a Roman Catholic priest who has long served in the nation’s drug-wasted slums.

Molina said he’s following orders from President Cristina Fernandez to change the government’s focus from enforcing drug laws against young people to getting them into treatment. He also said after Fernandez appointed him in December that Argentine society is ready to openly debate legalizing marijuana altogether.

“I believe that Argentina deserves a good debate about this. We have the capacity to do it. The issue is fundamental for this country,” Molina said in an interview with Radio del Plata.

The pace of change has put American legalization activists in heavy demand at conferences in countries weighing their drug laws, including Chile, Poland and the Netherlands. The advocates, including those who worked on the efforts in Washington and Colorado, have advised foreign lawmakers and activists on how to build campaigns.

Clara Musto, a spokeswoman for the Uruguayan campaign, said meeting with the Americans helped her group see that it would need to promote arguments beyond ensuring the liberty of cannabis users if it wanted to increase public support. “They knew so much about how to lead,” she said.

John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental organization that works to promote social and economic justice, was among the Americans who visited Uruguay as the president, the ruling party and activists pushed their proposal to create a government-controlled marijuana industry.

“This isn’t just talk,” he said. “Whether Colorado is going to do it well, or Washington, they’re doing it. If you’re going to pursue something similar, you’re not going to be alone.”

Editor’s note: AP writers David McFadden in Kingston, Jamaica; Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City; Leonardo Haberkorn in Montevideo, Uruguay; Michael Corder in The Hague, The Netherlands; Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Paul Schemm in Rabat, Morocco; Adriana Gomez Licon in Mexico City; and Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, contributed.

Gay couples rush to be first to wed in Uruguay

A gay couple showed up before dawn to be the first to register under Uruguay’s new “marriage equality law,” but another pair was married first on Aug. 5 after getting special permission for a rushed wedding at a hospital where one of the men is dying of cancer.

“It was very emotional,” said Luisa Salaberry, the civil registry worker who officiated at the hospital wedding.

She said that the ceremony was intimate and that the government waived the usual 10 days of bureaucracy because the patient’s cancer was so advanced.

“They had been waiting for the law to take effect so that they could get married,” said Salaberry, who did not identify the couple.

Civil Registry Director Adolfo Orellano confirmed that the hospital ceremony was Uruguay’s first same-sex wedding.

Earlier on Aug. 5, TV producer Sergio Miranda and artist Rodrigo Borda, partners for 14 years, were the first to register.

“This is an historic day for us and for the country,” Borda said. “No longer will there be first- and second-class citizens. This will be seen in many countries where this option still isn’t possible, and hopefully help people in those places live more freely.”

Uruguay is the third country in the Americas, after Canada and Argentina, to legalize gay marriage. President Jose Mujica’s government also decriminalized abortion and expects senate approval soon for a government-managed marijuana industry.

“This will help so that many people can say, `I went with my boyfriend to walk in the park,’ and not have to invent that they have a girlfriend or something like that,” Miranda said.

“There are people who constantly live a double-life,” Borda added. “That’s why we’ve made this so visible, to show that it can be done. We’re in a country that has a very open mind right now – you can see it in the people and in the street.”

Borda said U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay Julissa Reynoso is a friend who has been invited to the couple’s wedding.

The U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires announced an “LGBT Go” campaign, inviting people to apply for up to 60,000 pesos (about $11,000) in grants for projects that protect and strengthen gay rights in Argentina.

Priest involved in gay scandal gets senior Vatican post

Pope Francis is under fire for appointing a priest named in a gay sex scandal as papal watchdog over the Vatican’s scandal-ridden bank.

On 15 June, the pope appointed Monsignor Battista Ricca to be “prelate” of the bank. The Italian weekly news magazine L’Espresso says Ricca lived “more or less openly” with a Swiss army officer while serving at the Holy See’s diplomat in Uruguay. The article claims Ricca arrived with his lover and gave him accommodations and a job.

The magazine further says Ricca was once beaten up in a gay bar in Montevideo. It also claims that when the elevator broke down one night at the Vatican’s Uruguay embassy, firefighters who responded to the emergency call found him inside with a local rent boy known to police.

When Ricca was transferred to Trinidad and Tobago, his alleged lover left trunks behind in Uruguay containing large numbers of prophylactics and pornography, the magazine said.

Ricca has not commented on the allegations.

Uruguay votes to legalize same-sex marriage

Uruguayan lawmakers voted on April 10 to legalize gay marriage, making the South American country the third in the Americas to do so.

Supporters of the law, who had filled the public seats in the legislative building, erupted in celebration when the results were announced. The bill received the backing of 71 of the 92 members of the Chamber of Deputies present.

“We are living a historic moment,” said Federico Grana, a leader of the Black Sheep Collective, a gay rights group that drafted the proposal. “In terms of the steps needed, we calculate that the first gay couples should be getting married 90 days after the promulgation of the law, or in the middle of July.”

The “marriage equality project,” as it is called, was already approved by ample majorities in both legislative houses, but senators made some changes that required a final vote by the deputies. Among them: Gay and lesbian foreigners will now be allowed to come to Uruguay to marry, just as heterosexual couples can, said Michelle Suarez of the Black Sheep Collective.

President Jose Mujica, whose governing Broad Front majority backed the law, is expected to put it into effect within 10 days.

Nationalist Sen. Gerardo Amarilla opposed the law, saying it “debases the institution of marriage” and affects the family, especially in its “role in procreation.”

The vote makes Uruguay the third country in the Americas after Canada and Argentina to eliminate laws making marriage, adoption and other family rights exclusive to heterosexuals. In all, 12 nations around the world now have taken this step.

While some countries have carved out new territory for gay and lesbian couple, Uruguay is creating a single set of rules. Instead of the words “husband and wife” in marriage contracts, it refers to the gender-neutral “contracting parties.”

All couples will get to decide which parent’s surname comes first when they have children. All couples can adopt, or undergo in-vitro fertilization procedures.

The legislation also updates divorce laws in Uruguay, which in 1912 gave women only the right to unilaterally renounce their wedding vows as a sort of equalizer to male power. Now either spouse will be able to unilaterally request a divorce and get one. The law also raises the age when people can legally marry from 12 years old for girls and 14 for boys to 16 for both genders.

Outside congress, people jumped and cheered in celebration when the result was announced.

“I have all the rights and obligations of everyone else. I pay my taxes and fulfill my responsibilities, why would I be discriminated against?” said Roberto Acosta, a 62-year-old retired gay man.

Mujica, who spent more than a decade in prison for his actions as a leftist guerrilla in the 1970s and still lives on a ramshackle flower farm in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Uruguay’s capital, has pushed for a series of liberal laws recently. Congress agreed to decriminalize abortion, but Mujica had to suspend an effort to put the government in charge of the marijuana business, saying society has to reach consensus on that idea first.

Uruguay’s Roman Catholic Church asked lawmakers to vote their conscience and challenged the label of “marriage equality” as a false pretext, saying it’s “not justice but an inconsistent assimilation that will only further weaken marriage.”

Uruguay poised to legalize same-sex marriage

Uruguay’s Senate on April 2 voted to legalize same-sex marriage by approving a single law governing matrimony.

Senators voted 23-8 in favor of the bill, which was passed by the lower house in December. It must now return to the lower chamber of Congress with changes.

If approved, the law would make Uruguay the second nation in Latin America and the 12th in the world to legalize gay marriage. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010.

“It goes beyond homosexuality, it’s about a law where everyone shares the same rights and obligations,” said Federico Grana, a lawmaker in the ruling Frente Amplio coalition and a member of the Black Sheep Collective, a gay rights group that presented the bill’s first draft.

The bill lets couples, gay or straight, decide whose surname goes first when they name their children. It also clarifies rules for adoption and in-vitro fertilization, and eliminates the words “husband and woman” in marriage contracts, referring instead to the gender-neutral “contracting parties.”

“This is an issue of liberty, of people’s choice and justice,” said Sen. Rafael Michelini.

“Liberty because the state should not meddle in who you should marry; of justice because if you marry abroad with someone of the same sex and later return to Uruguay, your marriage should be recognized.”

The Roman Catholic Church opposes the proposal, but the church has little political influence in secular Uruguay, which became the first Latin American country to legalize abortion last year.

President Jose Mujica has been pushing for liberal-leaning proposals in his mandate and says he plans to sign the marriage bill into law.

Uruguay’s lower house approves gay marriage law

Lawmakers in taboo-breaking Uruguay have voted to legalize gay marriage, approving a single law governing marriage for heterosexuals and gays.

The proposal now goes to the Senate, where the ruling coalition has enough votes for passage. President Jose Mujica plans to sign it into law early next year.

The proposal, which passed the lower house of Congress by a wide margin, would also let all couples, gay or straight, decide whose surname goes first when they name their children.

That breaks with a tradition that has held for centuries across Latin America, where in nearly every country, laws require people to give their children two last names, and the father’s comes first.

“It’s an issue that will generate confusion in a society that has forever taken the father’s name. But these changes in society have to be accepted,” said Deputy Anibal Gloodtdofsky of the right-wing Colorado Party, who told The Associated Press he planed to join the ruling Broad Front coalition and vote in favor.

The “Marriage Equality Law” also would replace Uruguay’s 1912 divorce law, which gave only women, and not their husbands, the right to renounce marriage vows without cause. In the early 20th Century, Uruguay’s lawmakers saw this as an equalizer, since men at the time held all the economic and social power in a marriage, historian Gerardo Caetano said.

“A hundred years later, with all the changes that have occurred in Uruguayan society, this argument has fallen of its own accord,” Caetano said. “It’s absolutely logical now that divorces can happen if either party wants it. And I really think it won’t have much of an impact.”

The projected law’s co-sponsor, Broad Front deputy Anibal Pereyra, said Uruguay’s civil code needs to be updated so that all the rights and responsibilities apply to anyone who wants to marry, straight or gay.

Uruguay became the first Latin American country to legalize abortion this year, and its Congress is debating a plan to put the government in charge of marijuana sales as a way to attack illegal marijuana traffickers.

The new proposal would make Uruguay the second nation in Latin America and the 12th in the world to legalize gay marriage, after The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Denmark.

The bill also would clarify rules for adoption and in-vitro fertilization, and eliminate the words “marido y mujer” (husband and woman) in marriage contracts, refering instead to the gender neutral “contrayentes” (contracting parties).

The Roman Catholic Church is opposed to the proposal, but the church has little political influence in secular Uruguay.

Judging from the congressional debate so far, giving gays and lesbians all the same rights and responsibilities of married straight couples seems to have been the easy part for most lawmakers. The naming change seemed to cause the most controversy as the measure came through legislative committees.

In the end, the legislators proposed to let all couples choose which surname comes first for their children. And if they can’t decide, the proposed law says a “sorteo,” such as the flip of a coin, in the civil registry office should decide the issue.

The law also sets out naming rules for adoptees and people born outside marriage. A child registered by a single parent would take that parent’s name as a first surname. And one whose parents are unknown altogether would be given “two commonly used names” selected by the civil registry office.

In the United States and many other countries, couples are free to decide what surnames to give their children. Even in many Latin American nations, some people already shun convention and use a mother’s name if family circumstances make use of the paternal name inconvenient or impossible.

Uruguay’s neighbor Argentina has been more rigid: When it became the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriage in 2010, its lawmakers said last names would go in alphabetical order for the children of same-sex couples, and they left the naming traditions of heterosexuals unchanged. 

While Uruguayans seem broadly in favor of legalizing gay marriage, the naming issue has led to some confusion.

“I really can’t understand the point of letting heterosexual couples choose the order of their surnames. In reality, I think it’s for political correctness, and the price is to lose information: Today when someone is presented, we know clearly who the father is and who the mother is. Not so in the future,” said office worker Daniel Alvarez.

Gloodtdofsky acknowledged that non-gays may not have realized yet why these changes are necessary, “but the reality is that gays have been living as couples for years, generating rights. These rights must be recognized and attention must be paid to this new version of marriage.”

Uruguay has had a civil unions law that covers gay couples, and Bishop Jaime Fuentes of the Roman Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference of Uruguay said “It seems logical that two people of the same sex who care for each other and want to share their lives can have some kind of civil recognition, but it can’t be the same as what governs marriage.”

But Federico Grana of the Black Sheep Collective, a gay rights group that presented a first draft of the bill, said “society is much broader than just heterosexuals, so the law should reflect this, with everyone included, and no discrimination.”