MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) -- Uruguay's Senate began its final debate Tuesday on an audacious and risky plan to create the first national marijuana market, with the state regulating the entire process of growing, selling and using a drug that's illegal almost everywhere else in the world. Approval late Tuesday was all but assured, given the ruling coalition's majority and support from President Jose Mujica, who said he personally hates pot and has never smoked it.
Uruguay would then have 120 days to draft regulations imposing state control over the entire market for marijuana, from seed to smoke. Everyone involved would have to be licensed and registered, with government monitors keeping tabs to enforce limits, such as the 40 grams a month that any adult will be able to buy at pharmacies for any reason.
Congress' lower house already passed the measure, and senators rejected all proposed amendments before Tuesday's final debate, so Senate approval would send the law to Mujica for his signature.
Mujica, a 78-year-old former leftist guerrilla who was behind bars during the years when many others of his generation experimented with marijuana, said his government's goal is to combat organized crime and reduce drug use. A government ad campaign launched Friday makes this point, warning of pot smoking's dangers to human health.
"We think it's necessary to find a management strategy that controls and regulates consumption and production. This is not liberalization of marijuana. It can be consumed within certain parameters established by law. I think it will reduce consumption," Sen. Luis Gallo, a retired doctor, told The Associated Press before leading the Broad Front's presentation on Tuesday.
Polls say two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose the plan, despite a national TV campaign and other lobbying efforts funded by billionaire currency speculator and philanthropist George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation and Drug Policy Alliance campaigned for the proposal.
Hannah Hetzer, a lobbyist for the Alliance, moved from Washington, D.C., to Montevideo for the campaign, and celebrated the Senate's expected passage. "It's about time that we see a country bravely break with the failed prohibitionist model and try an innovative, more compassionate, and smarter approach," she said in a statement Monday night.
The Senate Health Commission got earfuls from expert witnesses urging lawmakers to retreat. Psychiatrists predicted a rise in mental illness. Pharmacists said selling pot alongside prescription drugs would harm their professional image. Teacher Nestor Pereira, representing the National Public Education Administration, said marijuana use leads to "educational failure, behavioral problems and depressive symptoms."
But marijuana use happens anyway, whether society wants it to or not, and right now it's led by a criminal underworld, said Socialist Deputy Julio Bango, who co-authored the proposal.
"Today there is a market dominated by drug traffickers. We want the state to dominate it," he told the AP.
Uruguay's drug czar, Julio Calzada, said his office is working hard so that rules will be in place by mid-April.
"There will be much to discuss and to work on. We'll spend the summer working. There's nothing magic about this," Mujica said.
As for concerns that Uruguay could become a mecca for marijuana tourism, Mujica stressed that the measure would restrict the legal sale of pot only to licensed and registered Uruguayan adults.
Marijuana grower Marcelo Vazquez told the AP he can't wait to pay taxes on the weed he's grown illegally for 20 years. After repeated police raids and arrests, he's optimistic. He has a greenhouse of marijuana plants growing outside Montevideo and is thinking about creating a business catering to licensed growers who lack space in their own homes.
"This is a huge opportunity and we have to take advantage of it," Vazquez said. "My lifelong dream has been to legally cultivate marijuana, and to live off this, to pay my taxes."