VIENNA (Reuters) - The United Nations anti-drugs chief said on Friday he did not see - for now at least - Uruguay setting a trend for countries to legalise the cultivation, sale and smoking of marijuana.
In a move being closely watched by other nations discussing drug liberalization, Uruguay's parliament in December approved a bill to legalise and regulate the production and sale of marijuana - the first country to do so.
Aimed at wresting the business from criminals, the small South American nation has gone further than countries that have decriminalized possession or, like the Netherlands, tolerate the sale of marijuana in "coffee shops".
In the United States, Washington and Colorado states have legalized the sale of cannabis under license, but Federal laws prohibiting it are still in place.
Yury Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said that for now he did not see other countries following Uruguay's example.
He was speaking towards the end of a two-day international meeting of U.N. member states that reviewed the implementation of a 2009 plan of action to combat the drugs problem before a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in 2016, amid a heated debate on the merits of liberalization.
"So far I don't see any other countries, or group of countries, that may follow the route which has been taken by Uruguay," he told a news conference. "It is hard to say but I don't see a trend now, today."
Fedotov, who earlier this week said legalization was not a solution to the world's narcotics problem, suggested he did not believe the new legislation in Uruguay was compatible with the "letter and spirit" of international drug control conventions.
The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) has said Uruguay's new bill contravenes the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which it says requires states to limit the use of cannabis to medical and scientific purposes, due to its dependence-producing potential. The Vienna-based INCB monitors compliance with this and two other drug control treaties.
There are around 27 million "problem drug users" in the world and about 210,000 narcotics-related deaths a year, a UNODC document prepared for the conference said.
There is disagreement on how to best counter the problem, with critics questioning the 'war on drugs' and advocating some legalization to try to undermine criminal gangs that thrive on narcotics trafficking.
In Latin America, the legalization of some narcotics is increasingly seen by regional leaders as a possible way to end the violence that accompanies the cocaine trade.
Diego Canepa, vice secretary of the office of President Jose Mujica, defended Uruguay's change of course but also indicated that the policy could be revised if it did not yield satisfactory results.
"Legalization is not the holy grail, we need to try it for five or six years," Canepa told reporters. "We know what we have done in the past does not work. Why continue failed policies?"
On the other side of the debate, Sweden made clear its position, saying cannabis served as a gateway to other drugs.
"I'm worried about the drug situation in the world ... governments are leaving the path which we all agreed in 2009," said the Sweden's representative Maria Larsson.
A non-governmental group, the International Drug Policy Consortium, criticized a statement on global drug policy to be adopted by the conference, saying it "does not acknowledge the serious shortcomings of the dominant approach to drug control, despite the numerous and unprecedented calls for reform made by European and Latin American countries."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)