The South American country’s move to full legalisation of cannabis has so far proved a success, especially for its 17,391 users
very afternoon a long queue of people gathers outside a tiny neighbourhood pharmacy in Montevideo. The shop is so small that they can only be let in one at a time. It’s a slow process but the mostly young clients don’t seem to mind. They stand outside or sit on doorsteps chatting in groups of twos and threes as they wait their turn in the warm southern spring.
A chemist inside in a green medical coat asks them each to press their thumb on a fingerprint scanner. The electronic device is connected to a central government computer that will either authorise or deny the purchase of their allotted 10 weekly grams of legal marijuana. It is a state-controlled, high quality product guaranteed to provide excellent highs.
“On the street 25 grams of marijuana would cost you 3,000 pesos, that’s about $100 for something with probably a large amount of pesticide, seeds and stems,” says Luciano, a young buyer who is next in line. “But here the same amount would cost you only $30, and it comes in guaranteed, premium quality, thermosealed 5g packs.”
In July this year, tiny Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalise the sale of marijuana across its entire territory.
“The most important thing has been the change of paradigm,” says Gastón Rodríguez Lepera, shareholder in Symbiosis, one of the two private firms producing cannabis for the government’s Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis. “Uruguay dived in at the deep end without too much international support. They said it wouldn’t work. Well, it’s working now.”
With a population of only 3.4 million, squeezed in between its two giant South American neighbours Brazil and Argentina (population 208 million and 43 million respectively), Uruguay has long been at the forefront of liberal policies not only in South America but worldwide.
A divorce law that allowed women to separate from their husbands simply by asking a court for permission was passed as far back as 1913. Abortion was legalised in 2012, with Uruguay the only country in Latin America to do so apart from Cuba.
Part of the reason for Uruguay’s liberal temperament is a longstanding separation of church and state in a region where the Catholic Church remains dominant. There is no official Christmas day on Uruguay’s state calendar. Most Uruguayans refer to the holiday by its government denomination of family day. Easter week is referred to as tourism week.
Uruguay’s switch to a legal marijuana market has not been without its hitches, however, notably the resistance of most pharmacists to act as outlets for the recreational marijuana (medical marijuana remains illegal in Uruguay).
Only 12 of the country’s 1,100 pharmacies have signed up so far to supply the 17,391 government-registered consumers served by the system, which explains the long queues outside. The low price and slim profit margin partly explain their reticence. “But the main problem is that banks have threatened to close the accounts of pharmacies selling marijuana,” said one chemist who sells marijuana in Montevideo, but who did not want to reveal his name for fear of such bank intervention.
Although sales of the drug have been legalised in various US states, they remain illegal at federal level, leading to a situation where most banks refuse to handle marijuana-related accounts anywhere in the world. Even now that sales in Uruguay have been completely legalised, the fear of running into trouble with the US federal authorities has become concrete.
“The problem with the banks was an unforeseen hitch,” says Eduardo Blasina, president of Montevideo’s cannabis museum, set in an old house in the artsy Palermo district of the capital city. “But these bumps will get smoothed out eventually.”
The potency of the original government-licensed marijuana also failed to satisfy consumers at the start. “The government made a mistake because the first batch they released to the market in July had a potency level of only 2% THC,” says Blasina.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis content. This is much lower than the levels found in legal recreational weed in US states like Colorado.
“The government quickly got the message and has now upped the content to 9% THC,” says the Montevideo pharmacist. A consumer himself, he adds: “I’ve tried it and I can assure you that it provides a most satisfactory experience.”
For those who would rather not buy their legal weed at a pharmacy, Uruguay’s marijuana law allows consumers to plant their own at home (up to six plants) or join special privately run “cannabis clubs” with a maximum of 45 members who are allowed to withdraw 40g per month from the club’s crop.
“The transformation of consumers has been astounding,” says Blasina. “They’ve gone from buying low-quality products from street dealers to becoming gourmet experts who compete with the crops at their clubs.”
Confident that pharmacists will eventually find a way to work round the refusal of banks to handle their accounts, Blasina is more worried about the ban on selling legal marijuana to visitors from abroad in a country where tourism keeps growing, partly due to Uruguay’s beautiful beaches, but also because of its growing reputation as a liberal haven in South America.
“Visitors arrive here hoping to enjoy freedom in one of the most liberal countries in the world, so they feel disappointed when they find out they can’t buy legal marijuana,” says Blasina. “They end up buying it on the street, which contradicts the whole point of the law, which is to cut traffickers out of the business.”
Blasina and others have started pressing the government for the passports of tourists to be stamped with a permit to purchase a small amount of marijuana during their stay. “A record number of visitors will arrive this summer and what will we say to them? Sorry, you can’t smoke?” he says.
There are ways round the problem, however. “The quality of the marijuana is so high that the 40 monthly grams permitted by the government far exceeds what I could smoke on my own,” says one Uruguayan who works with foreigners travelling here. “So I always have enough to share around with visitors.”
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