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.
Starting in July, the South American nation of Uruguay will begin selling legal cannabis in pharmacies all across the country. In this long anticipated move, Uruguay will be the first country to completely legalize recreational cannabis usage. While the cultivation, distribution, and consumption of marijuana have been legal since 2013, the implementation of direct access via pharmacy sales has been slow to roll out.
As of now, sixteen pharmacies have begun the process of registration with the federal government of Uruguay. In the coming months, that number is expected to double with growing interest and demand for accessible cannabis. The goal of this process is to “guarantee the quality and the purity of the product” that citizens consume, said Juan Roballo, head of the National Drug Board.
Here is what we know about the new regulations in Uruguay:
- Buyers 18 and up must sign up for a national registry of marijuana users to ensure they have fulfilled licensing procedures.
- Cannot exceed the monthly maximum purchase of 40 grams (1.4 ounces).
- Cannot exceed a maximum weekly purchase of 10 grams.
- The registry is open only to Uruguayan citizens and permanent residents.
- 1 gram of Marijuana will cost $1.30, and will be sold in containers of 5 or 10 grams.
- Portions of profits from the legal sales of cannabis will go to government drug-use prevention programs.
Supply Will Not Meet Demand
The Cannabis to be sold in Uruguay pharmacies will be largely grown by privatized companies with oversight of the government in state-supervised fields. So far, the country has a reserve of around 900 pounds, far less than the expected demand for cannabis when pharmacy sales start in July.
“We’re far from covering the real demand,”
said Roballo, “but starting sales will enable the companies to ramp up production.”
With an estimated 150,000 regular cannabis users in Uruguay, the 2,000kg production limit set by the government will most certainly not be enough.
Initially, the government had intended to choose five companies that would each produce 2,000 kilograms every year. However, after an investigation into potential drug cartel bids, the government ended up choosing just two producers. Advocates for the legal sale of cannabis in pharmacies say that it will funnel money into legal business, and away from drug traffickers.
“Buyers will have complete certainty about the quality of the product they are consuming, and so the risks will diminish considerably,”
Opposition from Pharmacies
The lengthy period of implementation for this law, noted earlier, is mainly due to the opposition from many pharmacists. Even with the legal sales beginning in less than three months, the issue is still not completely resolved.
“We are still not convinced pharmacies are the best place to sell recreational drugs,” says the spokesperson for the country’s pharmacists’ union, Carlos Fernandez, “but we are starting to prepare ourselves to do it in the sense of giving advice to people about the risks.”
Cannabis as a Political Issue
The marijuana law being references was passed under the former president José Mujica, and has made life a little more difficult for current president and former cancer doctor Tabaré Vázquez. During Vázquez’s first term as president from 2005-2010, he passed strict anti-smoking legislation. Two years ago, the president said that he would follow through with the legalization and implementation of the law, but was in “no hurry” to do so.
In addition to the legal sale of cannabis in pharmacies across Uruguay, the government also allows citizens to grow their own marijuana in collective cannabis farming co-ops. This provides a way for those who are opposed to government registry and quantity limits to still obtain legal cannabis. While the sale of legal marijuana is restricted to citizens and permanent residents, odds are that Uruguay will not become the next cannabis tourism hot-spot anytime soon. It does however, make life easier for those living in Uruguay looking to purchase cannabis legally, and without difficulty.
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.
Despite repeated pushback from the United Nations, Uruguay is prepared to defend its decision to fully legalize the cultivation and consumption of cannabis. Juan Andres Roballo, president of the nation’s National Drug Board (JND), is eager for the UN to open the discussion regarding national and international legalization.
Representatives for the UN have stated that Uruguay’s direction “is incompatible with what is stipulated in the 1961 Convention.” The landmark agreement outlined clear objectives aimed at limiting the possession, movement, and manufacturing of marijuana to “medical and scientific purposes.”
Roballo announced that Uruguay was forging new territory and that its new policies are likely to be scrutinized by the international community. JND Secretary Milton Romani stated that a history of stringent anti-drug laws has harmed rather than helped the country. He went on to say that regulation would work toward:
“…upholding the ultimate goals of these treaties, which explicitly say they seek to improve humankind’s health and well-being.”
Uruguay is taking the position that cannabis regulation is a matter of public health, and as such should not be managed through the criminal court system. A press release for the Tabare Vazquez administration declared that:
“[T]he criminalization of use and possession of drugs infringes upon the right to freedom and autonomy.”
Although legalization was initiated in Uruguay over a year ago, the regulations process is moving along slowly. Currently, home growers can cultivate up to six plants with a permit issued from the national Cannabis Regulation and Control Institute (IRCCA). In addition, non-profit cannabis clubs may distribute up to 40 grams of the plant to their members.
The process of selecting and licensing growers and pharmacies is still underway. Despite delays, Romani says that in the international discussion of legalization, Uruguay has “kicked the hornet’s nest.”