Uruguay's new anti-smoking president faces pot dilemma

Montevideo (AFP) - Uruguayan president-elect Tabare Vazquez, a cancer doctor returning to the country's highest office a decade after launching an anti-smoking crusade, faces a dilemma over his predecessor's landmark marijuana law.

Vazquez, who served as Uruguay's first leftist president from 2005 to 2010, won a run-off election Sunday, playing political leapfrog with current President Jose Mujica, his Broad Front (FA) party colleague, in this country that bars presidents from serving consecutive terms.

Under Mujica, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana all the way from the cannabis field to the joint, setting up a regulated market for cultivation, sales and use.

But though the legislation officially came on the books in April, implementation has gotten off to a slow start, complicated by election-year politics and polls showing that two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose the measure.

The law faces an uncertain future when Vazquez, a buttoned-down politician with a traditional style, takes over from colorful rabble-rouser Mujica on March 1.

Vazquez, 74, made anti-tobacco legislation one of his top priorities when he was first elected in 2004.

He signed strict anti-smoking bills making Uruguay the first country in Latin America to ban smoking in public, forcing cigarette-makers to cover their packaging with graphic cancer warnings, and banning tobacco ads.

That put him on a collision course with tobacco giant Philip Morris, which is suing the South American country for $25 million in an ongoing case.

- 'Any corrections necessary' -

Vazquez's anti-smoking crusade is a kind of homage to his blue-collar family, which lost three members to cancer -- his mother, father and sister -- in the 1960s, when he was putting himself through medical school.

The oncologist is so dedicated to medicine that he continued practicing throughout his first presidential term, though he has said he will give it up this time around.

On the campaign trail this year, Vazquez spoke out forcefully against smoking pot.

He said cannabis sales in pharmacies -- arguably the most headline-grabbing element of Mujica's law -- were "incredible," and that if elected, he would make "any corrections necessary" to the law.

"This could be one of the most complex issues" Vazquez faces in his new term, said Rafael Peneiro, a political scientist at Uruguay's Catholic University.

"Tabare Vazquez never would have sponsored a bill like Mujica's."

But, he added, Vazquez is not one to trample on his predecessor's legacy.

"Vazquez isn't the type of person to abandon the commitments made by the previous administration. He might introduce regulatory reforms at the edges, but I don't think there will be significant changes to the policy unless he runs into serious problems implementing it," he told AFP.

- 'The law is there' -

Under the law, marijuana users are supposed to be able to choose a supply source -- pharmacies, cannabis clubs or home-grown plants -- and buy or grow the drug in a regulated market.

One of the key components is a national registry of marijuana users to ensure that buyers have fulfilled the licensing procedures and do not exceed the monthly maximum purchase of 40 grams (1.4 ounces).

But users have been reluctant to sign up, fearing the anonymity promised in the legislation may not protect them if the government someday changes its policy.

Vazquez himself caused confusion in October when he said that thanks to the supposedly anonymous registry, the government "will better know who uses drugs and be able to intervene earlier to rehabilitate that person."

The head of polling firm Equipos Mori, Ignacio Zuasnabar, said the law's unpopularity will pose an added headache for Vazquez.

"The level of popular rejection of this law remains unchanged: two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose it," he said.

"Not to mention the complexities of implementing it."

But the law is part of the FA's official platform.

And Mujica still has three months to play his hand before Vazquez takes over.

An administration source told AFP the government hopes that pharmacy sales will begin before the March 1 handover.

The source admitted that details of the law may change, but said: "The law is there. It won't be easy to repeal it."