Uruguay moved closer to becoming the world's first nation to produce and distribute marijuana, after its lower house approved a bill putting control of the drug in government hands.

The controversial measure approved Wednesday was unveiled in June last year as part of a series of efforts to combat rising violence.

If the measure wins Senate approval, it would mark the first time a national government takes charge of production and distribution of legal marijuana.

Lawmakers argued for 14 hours before approving the text with 50 votes in favour out of 96.

"The regulation is not meant to promote consumption," lawmaker Sebastian Sabini, who helped draft the legislation, said at the beginning of the session.

"Consumption already exists," he argued. NGO workers favoring regulation of legal marijuana had filed into the chamber's visitors' galleries as lawmakers emphasized that the drug business finances organized crime.

Marijuana use has doubled in the last ten years in the small, mostly rural South American country of 3.4 million.

The government of leftist President Jose Mujica, who is a doctor by training, has given its blessing to the measure.

The lengthy debate was expected in the lower house, where the president's left-leaning Frente Amplio (FA) party has a narrow majority. All the opposition parties are against the proposed law.

The measure specifies that the government would assume control and regulation of the importation, planting, cultivation, harvesting, production, acquisition, storage, marketing and distribution of marijuana and its derivatives.

After registering, users would be able to cultivate up to six plants, gain access to the drug as part of a marijuana-growing club; or purchase up to 40 grams per month at a dispensary.

Marijuana users in Uruguay, not surprisingly, said they were delighted by the vote.

"As a user, it is an important law because we are going to have control over (the marijuana) we consume" said William, 21.

By contrast, he said, the cannabis sold by drug traffickers contains "a lot of substances that we don't want to consume."

Gerardo Amarilla of the opposition National Party, listing marijuana's effects on health, said the project was "playing with fire."

According to a survey released this week, 63 percent of people in Uruguay are against the government's plan.

Under the current law, possession of marijuana for personal use is permitted in Uruguay. Judges however can determine what quantity is considered appropriate for personal use.

Many Uruguayans are concerned the law will give the impression to foreign tourists that the country is a great place to unwind with marijuana or stronger drugs.

Uruguay's National Drug Board (JND) has said that the country is home to approximately 20,000 daily marijuana users, while the total number of consumers reached 120,000.

The JND estimated that 22 tons of marijuana are currently being sold in the country for between $30 and $40 million per year.

The legislative debate comes one year after the measure was floated by the government and in recent months has given rise to public debate and a media campaign.

"It's a change we've been waiting for, and it fixes the hypocrisy in the previous law," Juan Vaz, a spokesman for the Association of Cannabis Studies told AFP.

He said that the official figures on consumption were incorrect, estimating instead that the number of regular users was closer to 200,000.

But pharmacists did not favour selling marijuana in their stores. "We disagree with the sale of an abusable drug in a pharmacy, which is considered a health center," Virginia Olmos, president of the Association of Chemists and Pharmacists of Uruguay told AFP.

Source : An article in The Bangkok Post, (1 August, 2013), available:

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