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Legal distribution

Uruguay was the first country in the world to legalise the cultivation and consumption of marihuana. Pessimists predicted a rise in drug addiction and crimes, but that did not happen. Uruguay now has four years of experience with a legalised drug.
Marihuana smokers in Montevideo, Uruguay. picture-alliance/AP Photo Marihuana smokers in Montevideo, Uruguay.

In 2014, the parliament of Uruguay legalised cannabis. There now are three legal ways for the purchase and consumption:

  • You can buy cannabis in pharmacies, if you are a citizen of Uruguay and register as a user,
  • you can grow it yourself for your personal use, or
  • you can consume it in special clubs.

Cannabis is mostly used in one of two forms: as pressed resin (hashish) or dried herbs (marihuana). The psychoactive effect depends on the concentration of the active agent, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC content varies between two to 20 %. The difference between psychoactive and medical cannabis is defined by the THC content.

Since the drug was legalised in Uruguay, the production for personal use and the establishment of cannabis clubs were successful. Distribution via pharmacies has remained sluggish. The main reason is the boycott by big international banks. They threaten to sanction pharmacies that sell cannabis. For instance, they might close the accounts of pharmacies concerned. Accordingly, pharmacy chains are reluctant to become involved in the cannabis market, and this distribution system is not selling much. Otherwise, the regulated market would most likely be growing faster.

Moreover, the authorities delayed the implementation of the law. Only since July 2017 it is possible to buy marihuana in small packages of five grammes. A package costs slightly more than six dollars. Registered citizens can buy up to 40 grammes per month.

There have been cases of farmers being prosecuted illegally by the police for growing cannabis in the interior of the country. The farmers had actually complied with the law.

In the past year, the government ran a campaign for “prevention and sensitisation” regarding the use of cannabis. Diego Olivera, secretary of the national drug commission, told the press that awareness raising was “necessary and mandatory by law”.

Companies and clients

For several purposes, the state grants licences to grow cannabis. Recreational use is one of them. So far, two companies have been registered in this context: Simbiosys and International Cannabis Corporation. Moreover, the company Fotmer has attained a licence to produce an annual ten tons for scientific use. Medicplast has a licence for medical cannabis and has registered ten additional companies for hemp cultivation.

The companies for medical cannabis have founded an association, the Cámara de empresas de cannabis medicinal (CECAM), with more than 10 members. They are planning or implementing investments worth $ 100 million.

By the end of October 2018, Uruguay’s regulatory body IRCCA (Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis) had registered 29,386 buyers (eligible for purchases in pharmacies), 6,863 cannabis growers, 109 clubs and 17 pharmacies (of 1,100 in total in the country), which sell psychoactive cannabis. Pharmacies sold 1,200 kilos of psychoactive cannabis since they started distributing the drug in 2017, according to the IRCCA.

The IRCCA has published further information regarding the registered cannabis buyers: 49 % are between 18 and 29 years old, 34 % are between 30 and 44 years old, and 17 % are older than 45 years. Seventy percent of the cannabis buyers are male, and 35 % have a university degree. Of the people who grow cannabis for their personal use, roughly 70 % live up-country and the rest in the capital Montevideo.

The view of the drug users

Hernán lives in Montevideo and has been consuming cannabis for recreational purposes for years, even when doing so was still illegal. Since legalisation, it has become “easier to smoke marihuana,” he recounts. “We always used to be on guard so the police wouldn’t catch us.” Now he is more relaxed, Hernán says, and it is easier to purchase the drug. “Only the long queues in the pharmacies get on my nerves. There are simply not enough pharmacies that sell marihuana. But you can also order it via WhatsApp or online.”

On the other hand, many consumers maintain that the marihuana from the pharmacies is “nothing much”. They prefer to smoke it in the cannabis clubs, where the quality of the product is said to be much better. The fact that the state now regulates not only the sale, but also the quality and potency of marihuana, irritates many drug consumers. “We are not getting the world’s best marihuana of the world, although that would be possible,” says Hernán. “The state keeps a close check on how much THC is contained in the stuff that you get in the pharmacy.” He says black-market dope used to be stronger.

The government is run by the alliance Frente Amplio. It took the legalisation decision and is now contemplating how to use the topic in the next election campaign. For instance, it could propose modifications of existing regulations. Many regions of the country are still under-supplied, because not enough pharmacies are selling marihuana. The bank boycott is a lasting challenge. The legal market is not expanding as fast as the government would like. Diego Ferrer from the party alliance Frente Amplio concludes: “One of the objectives of this law was that the consumers shouldn’t be forced to buy their marihuana illegally. Unfortunately, we have not achieved this goal.”

The people, however, have accepted legalisation and embrace it. It has not brought any disadvantages. Consumers, cannabis farmers and pharmacies see lots of advantages.

Sebastián Artigas is postgraduate student of philosophy and psychology at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay.