Colorado and Uruguay Head-to-Head: Forging Disparate Paths towards an End to the War on Drugs


EspañolNow that law 19.172 has gone into effect in Uruguay, the small South American country of 3 million people joins the short list of places where the production and sale of marijuana for recreational purposes is legal. The other member of this elite club is Colorado, with Washington state following close behind, once the law goes into full effect this summer. In time, other states and countries all over the world will swell this list and further confirm the failure of prohibition as global policy.

However, the beginning of the end with the war on drugs shows two different faces in Colorado and Uruguay. In both places the sale of marijuana is legal, but the manner in which it is regulated is an accurate reflection of the idiosyncrasies of each culture. Statements by Uruguayan President José Mujica regarding the regulation of marijuana in Colorado have sparked controversy, and it is worthwhile to examine the differences in policy.

Country versus State

The Uruguayan system is more restrictive in some respects, but it does bear the advantage of being based on federal legislation, with less room for confusion. In Colorado, on the other hand, state law conflicts with standing federal law, which still prohibits marijuana. This conflict puts “legalization” in a precarious situation, particularly given uncertainty over the position of the next administration.

Who Can Buy Marijuana?

The first major difference between Uruguay and Colorado legalization is in who is allowed to buy marijuana. Mujica said recently that Uruguay will not become a destination for “drug tourism,” and so the sale of marijuana will be restricted to Uruguayan citizens or permanent residents. Foreigners who do not live in Uruguay will have no legal access to cannabis. Meanwhile, the Colorado legislature has not imposed any such restrictions on the purchase of the drug. Anyone who can prove to be over the age of 21 can buy marijuana for recreational use from an approved facility.

How Much Marijuana Can You Buy?

Uruguayans may purchase up to 10 grams per week in pharmacies that decide to sell marijuana. The monthly cap across the country is set at 40 grams. In Colorado, the purchase of recreational marijuana is limited to 1 ounce (slightly over 28 grams). Even though one potentially could go from dispensary to dispensary, buying one ounce at a time and accumulating stock, possession of more than 1 ounce exposes consumers to a potential fine by police. The limit for medical marijuana is set at two ounces, but can be expanded with a doctor’s referral.

Where Can You Buy Marijuana?

In Colorado, the sale of medical marijuana has been legal since 2000. Now that this has been broadened to allow sales for recreational use, existing shops that sold marijuana for medicinal purposes are allowed to expand their business. After October 1, those interested in getting involved in the recreational marijuana business also may apply for new licenses.

In Uruguay, however, the law provides only two methods for sale: pharmacies and cannabis clubs. Pharmacies will be freely accessible to anyone who meets the legal requirements. Cannabis clubs, which grow their own marijuana, are only accessible to those enrolled in the club, each ranging between 15 and 45 members.

Where Can You Smoke?

Marijuana consumption has been legal in Uruguay in some form for over 40 years. The sight of a person smoking in a park in Montevideo was not unusual, even before the new law, so there will be no major changes there. In Colorado, the law is much more restrictive, and smoking in public places is strictly prohibited. However, each city within the state is allowed leeway to approach violations of public smoking differently. For example, in Denver, the police have said they will not actively target individuals for smoking in public, while in Boulder, citations for public smoking are piling up. In both cities, prohibitions toward tobacco smoking are being extended toward marijuana.

How Much Will It Cost?

In true Latin-American statist tradition, the Uruguayan government has decided to set the price of cannabis at US$1 per gram. The rationale behind the fixed price is to keep the cost of legal marijuana competitive with the black market, and at the moment, the Uruguayan gram is trading at nearly 1 US dollar on the black market. Unlike Uruguay, regulation in Colorado says nothing about the price of an ounce, and it will vary according to supply and demand.

Surprisingly, however, Coloradans will be the ones paying more in taxes. In addition to the regular sales tax applied to all products, recreational marijuana in the Centennial State will be subject to two new taxes, on top of whatever other taxes each city decides to impose. By contrast, in Uruguay, all transactions related to cannabis sales will enjoy tax exemptions.


The greatest area of weakness with the Uruguayan law is in the way it deals with privacy. As in Colorado, radio frequency identification systems (RFID) are in place to monitor crops and prevent them from ending up on the black market. However, in addition to monitoring crops in this way, Mujica’s government intends to also track consumers. To this end, Uruguay has created the Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), an organization responsible for creating and maintaining a database of consumers, along with their digitized fingerprints.

When purchasing marijuana at a pharmacy, consumers will be fingerprinted so that the system can validate their purchase. Despite claims that the system was designed with privacy safeguards in mind, civil rights organizations in Uruguay have expressed concerns.

In Colorado, the amendment that paved the way for legalization in the state expressly prohibits the implementation of the sort of identification system presently in Uruguay. However, this does not mean that purchases will be completely anonymous. Shops that sell recreational marijuana will have cameras at each cash register, positioned so it can clearly make out the faces of both employees and customers. There will also be cameras at all entrances and exits where marijuana is sold.

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

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