* South American nation plans to legalize marijuana sales
* Government to grow marijuana if law passes Congress
* Sales to foreigners would be banned to avoid drug tourism
By Malena Castaldi and Diego Barboza
MONTEVIDEO, June 24 Uruguay's government plans
to start growing marijuana soon after a law legalizing sales of
the drug passes Congress, but a ban on selling to foreigners
will stop the country becoming a drug tourism hot-spot,
The leftist government announced plans last week to legalize
the marijuana market as part of a drive to stop rising crime,
arguing that the drug is less harmful than the black market
where it currently trades.
The use of cannabis and other drugs is already legal in
Uruguay, one of Latin America's safest countries and a
trailblazer on liberal lawmaking. The reform being sent to
Congress would legalize and regulate its sale and production.
Meeting the smoking needs of the nation of 3.3 million
people will require annual production of about 27 tonnes, the
government estimates, and the drug will be cultivated in a
plantation of roughly 100 hectares (247 acres).
It is not yet clear whether the drug would be grown by the
state or by private contractors under license.
Planting should begin in September if the law passes
Congress swiftly as expected - despite some opposition from
rightist lawmakers, a government source said.
Harvesting would start six months later, said Julio Calzada,
secretary general of the National Drugs Board.
"By regulating the marijuana market in the way we're
proposing, we're going to undermine the development of
trafficking of other drugs," Calzada told Reuters on Saturday.
"Our inclination initially is to have production and regulation
under state control."
The idea of a state-run chain of cannabis outlets has been
ruled out and the drug would initially be sold by closely
monitored private businesses.
Registered consumers would not be allowed to buy more than
30 grams (about 1 ounce) per month and foreigners would be
banned from buying the drug to prevent the small country
becoming a hot spot for pot-smoking tourists, Calzada said.
Uruguay is a favorite holiday destination among Argentines
and fashionable beach resorts like Punta del Este are also
popular with visitors from neighboring Brazil.
"The idea is that it would only be sold to Uruguayans ...
the Netherlands has had to retrace its steps on that issue after
years of difficulties with surrounding countries," Calzada said.
The famous coffee shops of Amsterdam have been a haven for
drug tourism for decades, but new rules are coming into force
that will make it harder for foreigners to buy.
Calzada said cannabis would carry a sales tax, the proceeds
of which would fund rehabilitation programs for addicts.
State-grown marijuana could also be used for medical purposes.
Pro-legalization groups welcomed the proposal by the
government of President Jose Mujica, a former guerrilla fighter,
but they are calling for it to allow personal cultivation too.
"As far as we're concerned, legalizing marijuana is an
attack on the drugs trade, which is sustained by the policy of
prohibition," said Martin Collazo from the Prolegal group.
Mujica's allies control both houses of Congress so the law
is expected to pass despite opposition resistance.
Rightist lawmaker Ana Lia Pineyrua said she had "enormous
doubts" about how the legislation will be implemented.
"I don't see how we're going to control this when we've
failed to control other things," she said, warning that Uruguay
risked riling governments battling drug-related violence in
South America such as Colombia, as well as the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama made clear to Latin American
leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April that
he opposes the legalization of drugs.
(Additional reporting by Felipe Llambias; Writing by Helen
Popper; Editing by Anthony Boadle)