Story by Matt Wild
In a historic decision on December 10, 2013, Uruguayan President “Pepe” José Mujica shocked the world by announcing that Uruguay would be the first country on Earth to fully legalize marijuana. Now, more than two years later, not even one gram of legal cannabis has been sold in a federally regulated pharmacy. However, recently two companies were been granted production licenses to legally produce and supply cannabis throughout the country and product is expected to hit the shelves of Uruguayan pharmacies sometime this month.
According to the law, citizens 18 years or older are allowed to grow up to six plants, purchase up to 40 grams per month in a federally regulated pharmacy, or register as part of a “grow club” which can cultivate up to 99 plants per month. However, the country has been slow to release production licenses and not until recently have any companies been allowed to legally produce and distribute cannabis. This leaves the only legal ways to obtain cannabis being to cultivate it yourself or as part of a grow club. All three options require registration with the Ministry of Health, and some citizens are reluctant to participate in these legal outlets out of fear of being on a list of known marijuana users. Perhaps these wary citizens have not forgotten the atrocities of the authoritarian military dictatorship that ruled Uruguay from 1973–1985, which was infamous for kidnapping, torture, and repression of undesirables. Many people in Uruguay are skipping registration entirely and growing cannabis illegally. In a country where cannabis has been decriminalized since 1974, similar to the Netherlands, the only legal risk of cultivating cannabis is the confiscation of plants; prison time is very unlikely.
There is also still the traditional option of buying cannabis illegally on the street, most of which is extremely low quality weed smuggled into the country from Paraguay, known as “brick weed.” President Pepe has attempted to neutralize such sales by fully legalizing cannabis. As he puts it, “All the police measures that we’ve undertaken in the last 100 years against drug trafficking have multiplied crime. Drugs have spread and violence has overrun society.” (1) With this experiment in reducing drug trafficking, Pepe says, “We want to try to take a clandestine business and bring it out into the open.” (2) Time will tell if his experiment proves successful.
In his formative years in the 70s, beloved President Pepe was a guerilla fighter, battling the authoritarian military dictatorship. He was shot multiple times by police and spent 14 years in prison. In addition to legalizing cannabis, Pepe’s administration has also legalized same-sex marriage and abortion. He also donates 90% of his income to charity, and while in office, opted to live on his own modest farm instead of at the lavish presidential palace.
According to the Institute of Regulation and Control Of Cannabis in Uruguay (IRCCA.gub.uy) many people have not been afraid to add their name to the government’s list, especially young people. They have been more than willing to do so in exchange for the right to legally cultivate and consume cannabis. As of April 19, 2016, the IRCCA reports that 4757 citizens of Uruguay have registered as home growers, as well as 12 cannabis growing clubs, which can include up to 45 members.
Although the country has been slow to get legal commercial sales of cannabis off the ground, some exciting progress has been made. On October 1, 2015, Uruguay announced that two companies—Simbiosys and Iccorp—have been granted permission to legally produce, market, and distribute cannabis to shops nationwide. The products from these licensed producers are predicted to hit the shelves this month in Uruguay for the price of approximately $1 USD per gram as controlled by the government.
With legal cannabis hitting shelves sometime this month, will Uruguay become the next tourist destination for marijuana lovers? Maybe, maybe not….
Although sales to non-citizens is illegal in Uruguay, there are no laws against gifting of cannabis to foreign travellers, and open air smoking is fully legal for everyone. This is in contrast to the U.S., where it is virtually impossible to legally smoke cannabis in public. In fact, cannabis tours available for travelers, one of which (MVDHIGH.com) is located in Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay. For $200 USD, tourists are driven around the city to a variety of tourist destinations where “tastings” occur—not unlike a wine tour, including one stop where you can smoke a joint on the steps of the national parliament.
Although it has been slow to start, former President Pepe’s bold experiment in fully legalizing cannabis for an entire country will be very interesting to follow, especially in the coming months.
1. Al Jazeera. (2013, Oct 26). Jose Mujica: ‘I earn more than I need’. Al Jazeera. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hteGnL-8SeU