Uruguay: Cannabis Sales Stuck In Limbo Two Years After Legalization

UruguayPresidentTabare-Vazquez[CDN].jpg

By Steve Elliott
Hemp News

More than two years after Uruguay became the first nation in the modern world to legalize and regulate marijuana, citizens are still waiting to buy the first legal cannabis at pharmacies.

Although Uruguay legalized in December 2013, the government has yet to implement a plan for mainstream cannabis commercialization, reports Ladan Cher at Foreign Policy, because they argue they can't rush such a complicated task. What was initially ballyhooed as the world's first controlled experiment of a nationwide marijuana economy is now stuck in limbo.

Uruguay has, rather than serving as a model for other countries hoping to legalize, become a cautionary tale about the difficulties which can be encountered on the way to creating a legal cannabis market.

The legalization law, passed with the support of groups like Regulación Responsable, permits Uruguayans who registered with the government to get cannabis in one of three ways: growing it at home, joining cannabis clubs (in which members grow a collective garden), or buying it from pharmacies.

But pharmacy sales are still unavailable, leaving only the 6,000 Uruguayans who grow their own plants with legal access to marijuana.

Pharmacy sales had been expected to be the most convenient and popular form of legal access in Uruguay. According to a 2015 study by the Latin American Marijuana Research Initiative, more than 55 percent of respondents who were registered, or planned to to register, with the government to buy cannabis said pharmacy sales would be their preferred method of obtaining it.

The government had estimated that up to 160,0009 Uruguayans would gain legal access to cannabis through such pharmacy by early 2015. Now they're saying mid-2016 is a "more realistic" goal. But they might miss that goal, as well; regulators still haven't even ironed out the basics of the program such as price controls.

So far, only two companies have been successful at obtaining permits to grow and distribute legal marijuana to pharmacies in Uruguay, although Milton Romani Gerner, secretary-general of Uruguay's National Drug Board, claims that investors are eager to get into the cannabis market, with more than 20 having applied for permits.

Uruguay's black market, meanwhile, remains as robust as ever. Some analysts believe Uruguayans are buying even more black market weed than before legalization. Last year, Uruguayan authorities seized a record high of 5,558 pounds of illegal weed, exceeding the 2013, pre-legalization, record of 4,824 pounds. The government's excessive caution in starting up the legal market is seen as the culprit.

The law was passed in 2013 under then-President Jose Mujica, known for being more liberal. His successor, Tabaré Vazquez, elected in October 2014, frequently urged caution about legalization while on the campaign trail; only after his election did he announce that he would implement the law exactly as written.

Photo of Tabaré Vazquez: CDN