While the United States continues to mainstream cannabis from state to state, marijuana reform has also taken hold all over the world, with many different countries starting the process of rewriting archaic cannabis laws. One country that is now well ahead of the curve is Uruguay, which just became the very first country in the world to fully regulate the cannabis industry. Following a landmark bill in 2013 and a cautious implementation, certified Uruguayan pharmacies can now sell cannabis directly to adults with the full backing of the law, with prices expected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.5 per five grams.
Not long after Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational cannabis, Uruguay was able to hobble together an impressive alliance that helped back the bill to legalize marijuana throughout the country. Although the bill was contentious, the group made up of human rights organizations, medical professionals, lawyers and prominent actors was able to win enough public support to help usher the bill through, effectively bringing marijuana out of the shadows throughout the country.
The Retail Market
In the years after the monumental move, however, the implementation has been slow and deliberate, as lawmakers have carefully pieced together an intricate program based on fairly strict regulation. Utilizing fingerprint technology, the government is allowing sales to anyone over 18 as long as they register with the government. While only an estimated 5,000 Uruguayans registered at the time that the announcement was made in mid-July, the numbers are expected to grow substantially as cannabis begins to hit shelves all over the country. The major step forward also fits a wide-spanning trend in Latin America, as popular opinion throughout the diverse region has started to get more favorable in recent years. In addition to Uruguay, both Mexico and Chile have shown clear majority support for legalized marijuana, marking significant shifts from prior public opinion.
But even though the breakthrough for cannabis in Uruguay is certainly significant, it also is unlikely to serve as much of a blueprint for states moving towards legalization in the United States. Aiming specifically to avoid becoming known as a cannabis tourist destination, Uruguay is allowing two different strains to be purchased by registered citizens only and shows no signs of letting cannabis blossom into a major industry. On the opposite side of the spectrum, states like Colorado have become widely known as cannabis tourist hot spots and recently unveiled more than $500 million in tax revenue already. At this point, it’s improbable that a state would adopt similar regulations as Uruguay, although the symbolic implications could still be profound throughout the world as attitudes on cannabis continue to shift.
Where Uruguay could have similarity to cannabis legalization in the United States is actually outside of the traditional shops. Although what citizens are allowed to buy directly from a regular store will be tightly controlled, there appears to be significantly more wiggle room elsewhere, as registered adults can now grow up to six plants or join cannabis clubs of 45 members or less. So even if Uruguay will keep the lid on what you can actually purchase from one of the country’s 16 pharmacies, cannabis is now extremely easy to access throughout the country for citizens.
More than anything, the legalization and regulation of marijuana in Uruguay shows that the process – difficult as it might be – is doable on a large scale, further aiding cannabis advocates ready to move forward in other parts of the world. Although every country (or state) will have a variety of different considerations for how to best regulate marijuana, pioneering countries like Uruguay offer an outline on how to proceed into the unchartered territory of a complex issue. As the above-board cannabis industry begins to take shape in Uruguay and other countries like Canada, the domino effect of legalizing cannabis appears to be accelerating.
Two weeks ago, the government of Argentina gained final legislative approval of a bill allowing for the medicinal use of cannabis oil. This legislation also permits cannabis to be grown for both research and therapeutic purposes. The unanimously approved bill helps to establish a means for scientific exploration of the effectiveness of marijuana to treat numerous diseases, as well as a way for Argentina to provide medical cannabis to patients free of charge.
This bill, having already been passed by the Argentinian House of Representatives last November, was championed by a group of 136 families. These families were attempting to petition the use of medicinal cannabis to treat children who suffer from diseases, like epilepsy, which have been scientifically proven to be treatable by cannabis. The major argument, other than the scientific evidence, is that medical cannabis improves both the quality of life of the children, as well as the family members tasked with taking care of them.
“It’s heartening to see Argentina prioritizing accessibility by providing medical marijuana at no cost to patients,”
said Hannah Hetzer, Senior International Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.
“This bill was long championed by families and patients whose suffering has been alleviated with medical marijuana, and it’s a relief they’ve finally been heard.”
What Does the New Legislation Say?
The new legislation passed by Argentina does the following:
- Government agencies are authorized to grow marijuana for research purposes.
- The government can produce cannabis oil and derivatives for patients.
- Argentina can import cannabis until the government supply can be locally sourced.
- Medical CBD oil can be distributed for free, to those patients who qualify.
Common Theme in South America
These big changes are not just happening in Argentina. Due to an ever-increasing wealth of pre clinical evidence as to marijuana’s medical benefits, cannabis reform has been picking up steam faster than ever. In recent years, a number of Latin American countries have made great strides toward the legalization and regulation of cannabis throughout the continent.
- Uruguay – Became the first country to completely legalize recreational cultivation and use in 2013. Recently, the government has put into motion their plans to make cannabis available for purchase in pharmacies.
- Brazil – This year, Brazil has begun issuing licenses to sell cannabis-based pharmaceutical drugs for patients who suffer from multiple sclerosis.
- Mexico – The Mexican government decriminalized growing cannabis for personal use in 2015.
- Chile and Colombia – Both countries have taken strides to adopt similar regulations to Argentina, allowing medical use of cannabis for specific treatment.
Going Forward in Argentina
In Argentina, individuals are still not permitted to cultivate their own marijuana. The punishments for breaking this law include up to 15 years imprisonment if intent to sell for commercial purposes is established. Growth for personal use can hold a jail sentence of up to 2 years.
Ana Maria Garcia Nicora, President of Medical Cannabis Argentina (CAMEDA) implies that cultivation is the obvious next step for cannabis advocates: “This law is the beginning…we achieved something important because we raised awareness and then implemented legislation for the benefit of everyone…however, it is clear that individual cultivation is very important, we need to keep working.”
Legislation being pushed by many different private pro-medical marijuana groups continues to increase, and progress is being made. Valera Salech, president of Mama Cultiva Argentina and major advocate of allowing the private growth of cannabis said,
“In history, the big things always come in small steps.”
The support and momentum of medical cannabis use is steadily growing. In the shift toward legalization and regulation, Latin America has emerged as a leader. This is a remarkable shift for a region so often stereotyped as a hotbed for illegal activity regarding controlled substances. While there is still room for improvement, the obvious progress being made toward decriminalization and education is promising.
The President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, signed a decree to regulate the cultivation, processing, import and export of medical marijuana on December 22. Medicinal cannabis has technically been legal in the northern-most South American country since 1986, but national production was hindered because a regulatory system was never established by previous laws.
Santos notified Colombian citizens of the new law, which establishes a system for licensing cultivators, processors and retailers, during a televised speech. Cannabis, in all forms, for medical and scientific use is now legal and able to be regulated in Colombia.
“This decree allows licenses to be granted for the possession of seeds, cannabis plants and marijuana,”
Santos announced from the presidential palace.
“It places Colombia in the group of countries that are at the forefront… in the use of natural resources to fight disease.”
President Juan Manuel Santos signing the decree legalizing the use of medical marijuana, next to Minister of Health Alejandro Gaviria, in Bogota on December 22, 2015 (AFP Photo/Juan Pablo Bello)
Now that the decree to regulate medicinal cannabis has been signed, those seeking to cultivate cannabis will be able to apply for licenses through the National Narcotics Council. Manufacturing licenses, for those who wish to process cannabis into concentrates and edibles, will be permitted by the health ministry.
Manufacturing regulations will be just as important as cultivation so that patients can have safe, reliable access to non-smokeable forms of cannabis, like concentrates which can be vaporized and infused foods and tinctures which can be ingested.
“Our goal is for patients to be able to access medications made in Colombia that are safe, high-quality and accessible. It is also an opportunity to promote scientific research in our country,”
The decree also permits health ministry licensed companies to export cannabis products to other countries.
Colombia now joins Uruguay, where cannabis was fully legalized in 2014 and Chile, where the government is also reportedly looking to establish an international sales market for their medical cannabis program, in the group of South American countries which have chosen to reform national cannabis policies.
In September of this year, the Chilean government announced that it would begin growing marijuana for medical research. In the short time since, research combined with lobbying by patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions has been enough for the government to permit marijuana to be planted, now, for medical use.
Today, a grow operation of seven-hundred-fifty medical marijuana plants will be set up in a residential neighborhood within the capital city district of La Florida just outside of Santiago. The plan is to harvest the plants in the spring to be turned into cannabis oil to treat chronic pain symptoms in two-hundred cancer patients.
The project is the first of it’s kind in Latin America, but joins a growing trend of research devoted to harnessing the medicinal value of the plant. The study will be conducted by Daya Foundation which are looking to test it’s efficacy as a pain reliever and a treatment for epilepsy.
For now, marijuana is only being considered for medical use. La Florida’s Mayor, Rodolfo Carter, told BBC News that he is not interested in following in the footsteps of Uruguay’s total legalization at this time.
“We don’t want to get into a debate about the personal use of marijuana. Let’s stick to the medical issue. This is about providing people who are suffering from cancer with a natural, healthier and cheaper treatment for their pain.”
Nicolas Dormal from the Daya Foundation says, “Cannabis can have some negative side effects but they are really insignificant beside other legal medicines. If you put the negative and positive effects in the balance, cannabis is much better than traditional medicine.”
One Chilean woman can agree with Nicolas from experience. Cecilia Heyder has obtained permission to use cannabis-based medicines after she was diagnosed with lupus and subsequently breast cancer. After trying over a dozen traditional pain relief medication with no success, Heyder used cannabis-infused tea to treat her pain.
The cannabis worked and Heyder went on to petition the government for access to medicinal marijuana. The government agreed to Cecilia’s requests and allowed her to import the medicine from Europe for the first time in Latin American history.
As countries like Chile and Uruguay struggle to find the right marijuana policy, lets hope for the patients’ sake that medical marijuana makes it to individuals like Cecilia Heyder who are in desperate need of the right medicine.
Photo Credit: BBC