Much has been reported or said about the full legalization of cannabis in Canada. But a few people know that Canada is only the second country in the world to legalize both medical and recreational cannabis. Uruguay actually came first.
Now, what do people know about cannabis in this South American nation? When did they legalize recreational pot and what events led to this progressive change in their cannabis policies?
Let’s take a more in-depth look into Uruguay’s cannabis industry.
History of cannabis in Uruguay
Uruguay has never criminalized the personal possession of cannabis and other drugs. A law was put in place in 1974 allowing judges to determine whether a particular case of drug possession was for personal or commercial purposes. This 1974 law was updated in 1998.
And while the consumption of drugs for recreational purposes has never been outlawed in the country, its cultivation and sale were forbidden.
Road to legalization
Uruguay’s government under then-president Jose Mujica announced plans to legalize state-fix sales of marijuana in June 2012. This move was in order to fight drug-related health issues and crimes.
Specifically, the legislative proposal aimed to reduce the profit that organized crime makes from drug trafficking. It also intended to lessen drug-related social problems and bring down the rate of violence connected to drugs.
Mujica’s plan was to permit users to cultivate cannabis for non-commercial purposes. He also intended to grant licenses to farmers for large-scale cannabis production. This plan included setting up a system for taxation, user registry, and quality control. This will be coordinated through the government agency that is responsible for monitoring alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals.
Mujica estimated that with around 70,000 cannabis users, the country will need to more than 5,000 pounds of the plant each month. He stated that by legalizing cannabis, Uruguay wants to contribute to humanity, but that they will backtrack in case the “experiment” goes awry.
The passage of the bill
The Chamber of Deputies passed the bill to legalize and regulate the sale and production of cannabis on July 31, 2013. It was then sent to the Senate, where it was approved with the minimum requirement of 50 affirmative votes.
On November 26, 2013, the bill was passed by the Senate’s Health Commission. And on December 10, 2013, the new law was accepted in the Senate with a 16-13 vote.
The bill was signed into law by President Mujica on December 23, 2013.
Implementation of the new cannabis law
While cannabis officially became legal in 2013, President Mujica announced that the full implementation of the new law would be postponed to 2015 due to “practical difficulties.”
In August 2014, a presidential candidate from the opposition claimed that the new law would never be applied and that it was unworkable. In December 2014, newly elected president Tabaré Vázquez stated that even if he had concerns about the new cannabis law, it would ultimately move forward. Personal and club grows already started at this point, but commercial sale hadn’t begun yet.
President Tabaré Vázquez
President Vázquez, who used to be an oncologist, promised to do a “strict and close” assessment and evaluation of legal cannabis. This while also declaring that people shouldn’t consume drugs.
Ultimately, commercial sale of cannabis was delayed until late 2017.
The government is responsible for regulating and controlling the cannabis production process. Cannabis companies can be granted a license to cultivate the plant if they meet all the qualifications.
The National Drug Council made it clear that it won’t be a free market. Authorities will be the one growing all the cannabis to be sold, and the concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) will be limited to 15 percent. Moreover, the government is the one who determines the quality and the price or the products, as well as the maximum volume of production.
People are allowed to buy up to 40 grams of cannabis from the government each month. Users also have to be 18 years or older to get cannabis. They also have to be registered in a national database in order to track their consumption.
As for individual cannabis growers, they are allowed to cultivate up to six plants in their homes each year and their yield should not go beyond 480 grams. Meanwhile, registered smoking clubs can grow up to 99 plants each year.
Registered cannabis users have to be citizens of Uruguay. This means that foreigners will be prohibited from purchasing cannabis in Uruguay. It is also illegal to move the drug across international borders.
Commercial distribution of cannabis
Uruguay does not have separate systems for medical and recreational users.
In 2017, the government allowed 16 pharmacies to distribute cannabis. These pharmacies are authorized to sell cannabis products without prescription but only to cannabis users who are already registered with the government. At this time, more than 22,000 people have been registered, according to a report from Michigan-based Komoron Law, which advises clients on cannabis-related issues.
There are two standard cannabis offerings: “Alfa 1” and “Beta 1.” Both of these standardized offerings have relatively low THC content.
Currently, there are only two companies licensed by the government to produce commercial cannabis, Vice News noted.
The price of cannabis has been fixed at $2.50 per gram, according to the Komoron Law report.
For users buying cannabis products, their identity and registration will be confirmed at the point of sale using a fingerprint scanner.
Since cannabis was legalized in the country, the production of the drug for personal use and the establishment of cannabis clubs have been relatively successful.
But since producers are also struggling to secure bank financing, there is the issue of supply shortages. And thanks to the lack of cooperation by major international banks, the distribution through licensed pharmacies has likewise remained sluggish.
Vice News also cited John Hudak, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, as saying that the fact the there are only two producers licensed by the government presents a problem related to supply. The amount of cannabis delivered to a pharmacy sometimes does not meet the demand.
People who do not want to purchase cannabis products from pharmacies can join registered clubs pr cooperatives instead in order to grow their own plants. These co-ops need to limit their members to less than 45. They also cannot dispense more than 480 grams of pot to any single member within a given year.
Currently, there are more than 80 cannabis clubs in the country. More than 8,000 people have registered with these clubs as homegrowers.