Uruguay marijuana
Uruguay House of Representatives has passed a bill to fully legalise marijuana (Reuters)

Uruguay is set to become the first country to to legalise the marijuana industry, after a historic vote in Montevideo's House of Representatives.

Lawmakers in Uruguay's lower house have passed a bill to fully legalise cannabis, bringing the South American country close to formalising a revolutionary approach to the war on drugs.

The bill, strongly backed by President Jose Mujica, would put the government in charge of production, distribution and sale of marijuana.

Countries such as Holland have previously legalised the consumption and small-scale cultivation of marijuana, but no country has hitherto legalised production on an industrial scale.

"At the heart of the Uruguayan marijuana regulation bill is a focus on improving public health and public safety," said Hannah Hetzer, a Drug Policy Alliance staffer who helped steer the proposal through the House of Representatives.

"Instead of closing their eyes to the problem of drug abuse and drug trafficking, Uruguay is taking an important step towards responsible regulation of an existing reality."

The bill was approved by 50 of the 96 MPs in Montevideo's lower house at the end of a 13-hour debate. To become law, the proposal now has to pasas the Senate.

The upper house is expected to grant its approval in a matter of weeks, as Mujica's coalition holds a strong majority in the upper house.

Copernican revolution

The law is designed to place Uruguay at the forefront of a Copernican revolution on the war on drugs that has gained momentum in recent years.

Governments across the Americas are looking at new ways to slash the high human and monetary costs of unrelenting fighting among the drug traffickers that feed Western markets.

Recently the US states of Colorado and Washington have legalised cannabis, while presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala also have called for reforms.

"Sometimes small countries do great things," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the US Drug Policy Alliance. "Uruguay's bold move does more than follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington.

"It provides a model for legally regulating marijuana that other countries, and US states, will want to consider - and a precedent that will embolden others to follow in their footsteps."

Under Uruguay's new legislation, the state will assume "the control and regulation of the importation, exportation, plantation, cultivation, the harvest, the production, the acquisition, the storage, the commercialisation and the distribution of cannabis and its by-products".

A new public authority is to grant licenses for all aspects of the industry. Authorities will also keep a confidential registry to prevent pot-smokers from buying more than 40 grams a month.

"This law consecrates a reality that already exists: The marijuana sales market has existed for a long time, but illegally, buying it from traffickers, and in having plants in your house for which you can be thrown in jail," said Camilo Collazo, a 25-year-old anthropology student and a pro-marijuana activist.

"We want to put an end to this, to clean up and normalise the situation."

Critics say the government was underestimating the risk of marijuana as a "gateway drug" for other addictions.

"Ninety-eight percent of those who are today destroying themselves with base cocaine began with marijuana," National Party MP Gerardo Amarilla said. "I believe that we're risking too much. I have the sensation that we're playing with fire."