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Why the first country to legalize marijuana might give up

Uruguayans rally for marijuana legalization.
Uruguayans rally for marijuana legalization.
Pablo Porciuncula / AFP via Getty Images

The world's first national experiment with marijuana legalization could collapse due to political opposition, the Associated Press reports.

Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana in December. The law went into effect in May, but the government hasn't implemented the plan and pharmacies aren't selling the drug just yet.

The goal of the law is to remove a huge source of revenue from violent drug gangs, which the government blames for a recent rise in crime. Uruguay's homicide rate increased by 21 percent and violent robbery rate spiked by 250 percent over the past 13 years,  according to the Associated Press.

Drug policy experts always questioned whether Uruguay's plan would actually cripple criminal organizations. Although it's likely gangs wouldn't be able to compete with the prices in Uruguay's tightly regulated but cheaper marijuana market, the criminal groups could fall back on trafficking harder drugs and other illicit activities, such as gun selling and extortion, to make up for lost profits.

Still, there was little dispute that criminal organizations would at least be weakened by the loss of marijuana revenue. John Walsh, leading drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, argued, "Even if it doesn't eradicate the illegal market, but it shrinks the market significantly, that's in and of itself an important outcome."

Now, the legalization scheme isn't popular and could collapse under political opposition. The most recent survey from polling firm Cifra found only 27 percent of Uruguayans approve of the marijuana legalization law and 64 percent oppose it.

President Jose Mujica, who championed the marijuana law, is generally well-liked and his party leads in the polls. But Mujica's party doesn't appear to have the majority support required to hold onto the legislature, and his successor could lose in a presidential runoff if the opposition coalesces around a single candidate.

Uruguay could have avoided some political fallout come October if it implemented the marijuana law more quickly. But, as the Associated Press points out, officials have given conflicting dates — ranging from late this year to sometime in 2015 — for when the application process will finish and marijuana will reach state-regulated pharmacies.

Julio Calzada, the architect of Uruguay's marijuana legalization scheme, insists the plan will move forward. But if the country doesn't pull it off soon, it could be too late for the world's first national marijuana experiment.

To learn more about Uruguay's marijuana legalization plan, read Vox's full explainer. To learn more about marijuana legalization in the US, read Vox's card stack and watch the video below:

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