After more than 13 hours of debate, lawmakers in Uruguay's lower chamber headed to a vote just before midnight on Wednesday on a bill legalizing the cultivation and sale of marijuana.  50 of the chamber's 96 members - every member of the South American country's governing Broad Front coalition - voted in support of it.  It will pass now to the Senate, where the Broad Front enjoys a bigger majority, then to the desk of President José Mujica, who has long fought for its passage.  When he signs it, he could be turning a leaf in Latin America's war on drugs.

The law, which will legalize the cultivation of up to six plants of marijuana and permit consumers who register with a government agency to buy up to 40 grams per month in certain pharmacies, is the boldest expression of a long-simmering dissent among Latin American leaders with a US-backed military solutions to the trade of illicit drugs.  Two Latin American presidents, center-left Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and conservative Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, have recently called for a change of strategy.  Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, who while in office launched a military operation which stationed federal police and soldiers to eight Mexican cities in 2005 in an effort to clamp down on cartels, has been pitching ideas for legalizing marijuana to anyone who will listen, and recently told Milenio he'll cultivate it on his farm as soon as it happens.  And a recent report authored by a commission from the Organization of American States - a group including all 35 countries in the Americas - suggested alternatives which included the legalization of marijuana.  General Secretary of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza, backed the measure during a visit to Uruguay last week.

"We have no objection to the process as it goes forward," Insulza said of the bill after meeting with Uruguay's head of state.  "We aren't openly supporting it because we don't have the mandate of the member countries...[but] the debate on marijuana is an open one and it's going to produce changes in the short term."

So does it mark a new beginning in Latin America's war on drugs?

Yes, says Christopher Sabatini, director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.  Sabatini sees it as a "crack in the consensus" of accord with the US-based, US-centric criminalizing approach to drug control.  He thinks leaders in Latin America will watch Uruguay's new approach closely and with an eye on three things: one, how the law will be implemented and how the marijuana market will become formal; two, what it will mean for relations with the United States; and three, whether legalization of marijuana will free up resources to allow states to focus on other drugs and smuggling crimes, and whether law enforcement agencies will actually redirect resources toward those things.

"I think we're turned a corner here.  I think we'll be looking ten years from now at a much more varied set of policies across the hemisphere when it comes to drugs," Sabatini told the Latin Times. 

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Some experts say there's an irony at work in Uruguay's historic move: while the US government has long pressured Latin American governments to adopt a criminalizing approach to marijuana and other drugs - and handed out billions of dollars in aid to do so - some US states are moving in the same direction as Uruguay.  In June, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed several measures establishing the state as the world's first legal, regulated and taxed marijuana market (though it's still illegal under federal law).  Washington passed a similar law last November. 

Uruguay didn't exactly wait for those states to get moving, points out John Walsh, senior associate for drug policy with the Washington Office on Latin America. 

"I don't think it was inspired [by the US states], because the proposal eventually initiated in Uruguay before the outcomes of the votes in Colorado in Washington," Walsh told the Latin Times.  "This was raised in Uruguay in the middle of last year.  There's already been a robust debate in Uruguay about this over the past several years.

But, Walsh adds, the successes of the proposals in those two US states "put wind in the sails" of legalization proponents in Uruguay.  And lawmakers and policy experts in countries like Mexico, Ecuador, and Chile, where similar proposals are on the docket, are going to keep a close watch on how the laws unfold in all three places.

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Located far south of where most of the inter-American drug trade's violence is played out, Uruguay might not seem like a natural trail-blazer in drug policy.  But it may be exactly because of its relative peacefulness that such a move could be politically viable.

"It makes it an easier case to test," says Sabatini.  "It isn't receiving US assistance for the drug war, so it isn't losing anything by adopting this policy.  Colombia, Guatemala, other countries could very well lose their assistance" - which for Colombia will be $30 million in 2013 - for police reform, judicial reform, drug enforcement policy.  Uruguay doesn't have to worry about that."

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And the other part of why Uruguay will become the first to take the historic step, adds Sabatini, is President José Mujica, who pushed hard for the law. 

Mujica says he has never used marijuana - "I don't even really know what it is," he claims - but believes enough people do consume it that it should be regulated.  According to figures from Uruguay's National Commission on Drugs, 20 percent of Uruguayans between 15 and 65 years old have tried marijuana in their lifetime, and 8.3 percent used it within the last year.

His is not a popular view: 63 percent of the Uruguayan public opposes it, according to a survey carried out by a government agency this week.  But he defends it by saying that traffickers' extracurricular activities are "worse than the drug", while the use of it is "right in front of our noses."

"It has generated a clandestine market which mafiosos have monopolized," he told La Republica in January.  "The worst part about all this is that it never ends.  They take down a plane, they take down so-and-so and so-and-so, but the drug is still there, because the rates of profit are enormous and there's always people who are willing to risk it for the quick profit." 

The Uruguayan president is making a name for himself among the international left as a more bohemian alternative to the bombast and venom of other Latin American leftist icons.  Mujica, a former member of the leftist guerrilla group Tupamaros who was shot six times and often endured torture during the 14 years he spent in jail, lives on a small farm with his wife outside of Montevideo.  He gives away most of his presidential salary, and drives into the capital in a 1987 Voltswagon Beetle.

In the January interview, he called the fight for legalization "a battle for public health".

"Let no one even dream that we're saying that pot is good, or that it's better than tobacco.  No, no,  the thing is that the kids who are doing it don't give a damn about good advice.  And if they don't, you can't leave them abandoned and in a gang, because you've got to be on their side, you've got to influence them...It's not simple, and we're aware that this experiment we're doing is at the vanguard of the whole world."