MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) -- Uruguay's unprecedented proposal to fight organized crime by creating a legal, government-licensed marijuana market was fiercely debated by lawmakers on Wednesday, as the ruling party counted every vote in hopes of winning passage in the lower house of Congress.
The ruling Broad Front coalition has a more comfortable majority in the senate, so Wednesday's house vote was seen as the best chance for opponents to block the law.
The plan has changed little in the six months since President Jose Mujica postponed the voting to give supporters more time to rally public opinion. Recent polls show two-thirds of Uruguayans remain opposed despite a "responsible regulation" campaign for the bill.
Ruling coalition Deputy Sebastian Sabini told The Associated Press that "without a doubt it would be a surprise if this proposal doesn't pass, since it's already been agreed to within all the sectors of the Broad Front."
But with only 50 of 99 seats held by the ruling coalition, and one of their own deputies being openly critical of the proposal, passage was not assured during the hours-long debate.
Mujica, for his part, said he has never consumed marijuana, but that the regulations are necessary because many other people do. "Never in my life did I try it, nor do I have any idea what it is," he told the local radio station Carve.
The heavy toll, costs and questionable results of military responses to illegal drugs have motivated marijuana legalization initiatives in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington, and inspired many world leaders to re-think drug laws. But Uruguay would be the first country to legalize and license a nationwide marijuana market, said John Walsh, an expert on drug policy with the Washington Office on Latin America.
Uruguay's effort has won support from the Organization of American States Secretary-General Jose Miguel Inzulza, who met with Mujica last week and said his members have no objections. Pope Francis, however, said during his visit to Brazil that the "liberalization of drugs, which is being discussed in several Latin American countries, is not what will reduce the spread of chemical substances."
If it passes, Uruguay's government would license growers, sellers and consumers, and update a confidential registry to keep people from buying more than 40 grams a month. Carrying, growing or selling pot without a license could mean stiff penalties including prison terms.
The idea is to have the government satisfy demand legally, fostering enough marijuana production to drive out illegal dealers and draw a line between pot smokers and users of harder drugs.
The latest proposal "has some adjustments, aimed at strengthening the educational issue and prohibiting driving under the effects of cannabis," Sabini said. "There will be self-growing clubs, and it will also be possible to buy marijuana in pharmacies" that is mass-produced by private companies.
The House's committee on addictions decided to limit these growing cooperatives to 45 members each. An Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis would be created, with the power to grant licenses for all aspects of a legal industry to produce marijuana for recreational, medicinal or industrial use.
Sabini compared it to Uruguay's agency that controls the wine industry. "Wine in Uruguay is very well controlled. And I assure you that producing wine is very much more difficult than producing cannabis."
National Party Deputy Gerardo Amarilla, however, said the ruling party's publicity campaign downplayed the risks of marijuana, which he called a "gateway drug" for other more addictive drugs that foster violent crimes.
"Ninety-eight percent of those who are today destroying themselves with base cocaine began with marijuana," he said. "I believe that we're risking too much. I have the sensation that we're playing with fire."
Supporters say the proposal aims to eliminate a legal contradiction in Uruguay, where it's legal to consume pot but against the law to sell it, buy it, produce it or possess even one marijuana plant.
Laura Blanco, president of Uruguay's Cannabis Studies Association, says regulations needed to implement the law would have to be developed quickly.
"We need to work on the entire model so that it's viable and can go into effect 60 or 90 days after it's approved," she told the AP.