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Uruguay's President Jose Mujica, right, stands in front of an image of revolutionary hero Ernesto Che Guevara during a wreath-laying ceremony at the Jose Marti monument in Havana, July 24, 2013.ENRIQUE DE LA OSA/Reuters

Uruguay's leftist President Jose Mujica said his country would not become a haven for pot smokers the day after its lower chamber of Congress narrowly voted to legalize the cultivation and sale of marijuana. The bill, which Uruguay's senate will likely pass and make into law, creates a government body to regulate legal sales and public smoking clubs and to monitor marijuana consumption for Uruguayans.

To avoid making the country a drug tourism destination, only Uruguayans would be allowed to use marijuana. The use of marijuana is already legal in the South American nation, but the sale and cultivation of it is not.

"No one should think implementing this law would create disorder or encourage consumption," said Mr. Mujica, a former guerrilla fighter and strong supporter of the measure.

Controlling the marijuana trade under strict guidelines would instead help undermine drug-smuggling gangs and fight petty crime, he told a local radio program on Thursday.

"Nowhere in the world has repression yielded results," he said. "We know we are embarking on a cutting edge experiment for the whole world."

Mr. Mujica, a 78-year-old religious Catholic, said on Thursday he had never smoked pot. "I'm old – I've had the vice of smoking [cigarettes] and a drink now and then but never in my life have I tried a joint."

During Mr. Mujica's three-year administration, this country of 3.3 million people has emerged as a laboratory for socially liberal policies, enacting a sweeping abortion-rights law, moving to legalize same-sex marriage and hoping to become a centre for renewable energy ventures.

Leading up to his election, The Economist described Mr. Mujica as "the son of a dictator, neoliberalism's booster-in-chief and a roly-poly former guerrilla, who, after 14 years in prison, grows flowers on a small farm and swears by vegetarianism."

A recent poll showed 63 per cent of Uruguayans oppose the marijuana measure. Critics say it would lure people to harder drugs and create problems for Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Mexico, that have battled drug-related violence.

The Organization of American States supports the bill while Pope Francis does not. OAS secretary-general Jose Miguel Inzulza told Mr. Mujica last week that his members had no objections. Pope Francis, on the other hand, said the "liberalization of drugs, which is being discussed in several Latin American countries, is not what will reduce the spread of chemical substances."

Sources: The New York Times, Reuters

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