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Marijuana Legalization in Uruguay: Progress and Challenges Three Years Later

By: Adam Dubove - @dubdam - Oct 21, 2016, 10:02 am
Legalizar el consumo y venta de marihuana en Uruguay ha sido la mayor apuesta de ese gobierno contra el narcotráfico (Youtube)
Legalizing marijuana use and sale in Uruguay has been the best measure of that government against drug trafficking. (Youtube)

By Angelo Flórez de Andrade

In December 2013, the Uruguayan Chamber of Senators approved Law 19.172, through which the General Assembly regulated the production, marketing and possession of marijuana in Uruguay.

According to the Scientific Advisory Committee for Monitoring and Evaluation of the Policy for the Regulation and Control of Marijuana in Uruguay, Law 19.172 decriminalizes users of recreational cannabis, and helps concentrate the country’s institutional efforts in the promotion of drug prevention programs, as well as medical care for the potential affected users, while fighting drug trafficking.

Nearly three years after the creation of this law, it is worth examining how its implementation is doing.

Why did Uruguay Go First?

Despite its small population (about 3,300,000), Uruguay has been a pioneer in Latin America in promoting laws that have allowed citizens to exercise individual liberties. In 1907, legislators enacted the Law 3245, which legalized divorce by mutual consent between the parties involved.

In 1913, Uruguay legalized unilateral divorce for women. Countries such as Colombia did not legalize divorce until 1972, and Chile did the same in 2004.

The Oriental Republic approved women’s suffrage in 1927, becoming the first in South America. It also decriminalized abortion in 1933, although in 1936 it was banned again.

Uruguay was also one of the first Latin American countries to grant rights to the LGBTI community. In 2007, Uruguayans legalized unions between same-sex couples. Two years later, the Uruguayan General Assembly allowed adoption for same-sex couples. Finally, it approved marriage between same-sex couples in 2010.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Uruguay was the first to regulate marijuana production.

The Situation Before 2013

In 1998, Law 17.016 established a legal minimum dose of marijuana in Uruguay, partially decriminalizing its consumption. In 2012, the government of José Mujica proposed to develop a new law to regulate the production and use of cannabis.

The purpose of the law was to change the country’s anti-drug policy. For the promoters of Law 19.172, it was more important to fight against drug trafficking than against consumers.

In 2013, and after the approval of both houses of the General Assembly, the government regulated the consumption and production of marijuana.

Law 19.172: The Content

Uruguay’s legislation allows Uruguayan citizens and residents to acquire cannabis for recreational purposes by three means: self-supply, membership clubs and direct purchase in pharmacies.

By September 2016, the country had implemented the registration of citizens interested in self-sufficiency, and membership clubs. Local pharmacies have not started selling marijuana yet.

Law 19.172 also regulates the production of non-recreational marijuana in the country. This includes medicinal use and industrial use of non-psychoactive hemp.

Non-recreational Use of Marijuana in Uruguay and Law 19.172

Uruguayan authorities are looking to attract investment from pharmaceutical companies interested in research about the medicinal uses of cannabis. They have already opened courses on the medicinal use of marijuana in the country.

Cannabis hemp can be used for the production of textiles, paper, oils and biofuels. In 2014, the Uruguayan government regulated the legal elements necessary for hemp producers in the country.

Domestic Cultivation

The law states that citizens and residents in Uruguayan territory may grow cannabis for self-supply. Citizens who have domestic crops can cultivate six plants and up to 480 grams per year.

Those interested in marihuana cultivation for self-sufficiency must register at the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA). There are two requirements for registration: submit the certificate of Uruguayan identity, and proof of residence.

By September 2016, the IRCCA had approved 5,214 applications for domestic cultivation. Marijuana cultivation in Uruguay without registration is illegal, and unreported plants must be destroyed.

Membership clubs

The law also allowed the creation of membership clubs. These clubs are allowed to possess up to 99 cannabis plants.

A membership club must be composed of 15 to 45 members. The legal requirements to create a club are much more complex than for self-cultivation. However, registration at the IRCCA has no cost.

Until the end of September 2016, the IRCCA had approved 20 clubs. The cost of entering a Cannabic club ranges between US $20 and $1,800 per month.

Marihuana in Pharmacies

Uruguayan pharmacies are not yet selling cannabis for recreational use. Only legally established pharmacies may apply for registration at the IRCCA.

According to official sources, about 50 pharmacies have signed up to sell marihuana. However, leaders of trade associations assert that only 10 pharmacies are willing to sell the plant in the country.

The government expects at least 100 pharmacies of the 19 provincial capitals and cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants signing up to selling marijuana in Uruguay.

Acquirers must report to the authorities its intention to buy cannabis. Buyers’ data will be available for three institutions: the IRCCA, the Drug Board and the judiciary.

Adult Uruguayans and residents may buy 10 grams per week, or 40 grams per month. Pharmacies must have a special device to analyze the fingerprint of those who purchase the product.

The cannabis to be sold in Uruguayan pharmacies will be supervised by the government. Of the 22 companies that were interested in cultivating the cannabis that will be sold in pharmacies, only two were selected.

These companies will produce 4,000 kilos a year. Each pharmacy will be allowed to have a reserve of two kilos.

Moreover, the State shall regulate the prices of cannabis aiming to combat the illegal market. The companies selected to cultivate and produce the plant will sell the gram at $0.90. Pharmacies can earn up to 30 percent on the sale of the product.

Delays in the Sale of Non-Medical Marijuana 

Despite the achievements of this new policy against drug trafficking, critics note that the implementation of the sale of marijuana in pharmacies is taking too long. Back in May 2016, leaders of the Uruguayan government announced that the marketing of non-medical marijuana would begin in pharmacies in July 2016. However, this has not happened.

One of the causes of delay has been the strike at the Uruguayan post offices, given that consumers must registrate in the offices of the state postal company.

For some leaders of pharmaceutical associations in the country, the reason behind the delay in the sale of cannabis in pharmacies is the state control of prices. According to them, price controls prevent the product from being sufficiently profitable.

A spokesman for President Tabaré Vazquez’s adminstration said the delays in the marketing of marijuana have to do with the design and implementation of strategies aimed to prevent consumers from using the product. The law prohibits advertising the sale and consumption of cannabis in the country.

Despite all the challenges and difficulties the Uruguayan government is facing to implement Law 19.172, especially for the sales in pharmacies, the country’s change of focus in the policy against drug use, particularly against drug trafficking, is remarkable.

While there are still no studies of the results of the law, one of its main achievements is that at least 5,000 Uruguayans — citizens authorized by the ICCRA for domestic cultivation — will not buy marijuana from drug traffickers. It is expected that when the government finally authorizes the sale in pharmacies, a few others will do the same.

Adam Dubove Adam Dubove

Adam Dubove is a journalist, co-host of The Titanic's Violinists radio show, and the secretary of the Amagi Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @dubdam, and read his blog: Diario de un Drapetómano.