20.10.2017

Don't leave it to the gangs! The state of Uruguay sells cannabis

Montevideo (Uruguay) – The country faces obstacles on its ambitious path to create a state-run cannabis market.

Photo: Uruguay Flag on cannabis background, photo by iStockphoto.com / PromesaArtStudio

In Uruguay, home growers may apply for a government permit to cultivate up to six cannabis plants. iStockphoto.com / xeni4ka

Uruguay was the first country in the world to legalize the sale of recreational marijuana. But efforts to set up retail outlets have run into a range of problems.

Following the state’s decision to allow the sale of recreational marijuana, pharmacies in Uruguay started selling it in July, and were soon struggling to keep up with demand. However, major US banks quickly threatened to shut down the accounts of pharmacies with links to the cannabis trade, in light of US narcotics regulations. Soon, only 15 pharmacies nationwide were willing to carry marijuana. It was only the latest in a long list of hurdles that Uruguay has hit on its ambitious path to create a state-run cannabis market.

According to a range of studies, the prohibition of marijuana has not reduced consumption and merely criminalized and stigmatized consumers, as well as laid the foundation for an enormous black market.

At the 2016 United Nations general assembly special session on drugs, leaders called for a more humane solution to drugs trafficking and consumption, one that would focus on more than law enforcement and criminalization. The UN encouraged national experiments in a bid to find a new solution. Uruguay’s initiative could be seen as one such, but it shows the difficulties in facing the legacy of worldwide prohibition.

According to a range of studies, the prohibition of marijuana has not reduced consumption and merely criminalized and stigmatized consumers, as well as laid the foundation for an enormous black market. Organized crime reaps vast profits, has grown in power and stature, spreads violence and undermines democracy and the rule of law in many parts of the world. Yet most governments have chosen to ignore all this evidence and the urgent calls of experts like the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Not so Uruguay. Despite fierce opposition, the centre-left-government has had the bravery to put reason first. It had the political courage to push for the reforms, even though 70 per cent opposed the initiative in 2012, the year before the law was eventually passed. This public opposition to allowing sales of marijuana came despite the long-standing decriminalization of narcotics consumption, which dates back to 1974.

If smoking weed was not criminal in Uruguay, buying it was until recently. But now the entire process, from cultivation to consumption, has been decriminalized. Home growers may apply for a government permit to cultivate up to six plants. Larger cannabis clubs allow a maximum of 45 members to collectively cultivate up to 99 plants. Meanwhile, registered adults may purchase 40 grammes a month from licensed pharmacies that source their crops from government-approved firms.

The government’s main motivation is reducing criminal profits and consumer’s contacts with dealers. Finally, drug consumption and abuse can be treated for what it is: a public health issue, and not a criminal justice one. Far from playing down the risks of drug abuse, the government crafted a comprehensive regulatory framework.

Sale to minors, driving or working under the influence of cannabis, and all forms of advertising are prohibited. Regulation is overseen by a single body: the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis. Meanwhile, legislation to tighten the markets for tobacco and alcohol is being stepped up.

While it is too early to assess the impact of the reform on public health and on crime rates, consumers have accepted the government’s strict regulations. So far, some 7,300 have registered as cultivators, and nearly 15,000 have registered as consumers. More have joined 64 government-approved cannabis clubs. After just a few months, the system already covers almost a fourth of the country’s estimated 130,000 consumers.

Therefore, Uruguay currently has practical experience in regulating the value chain—an alternative to the market-based approach chosen by US states like Colorado. But it too can learn from other countries, especially when it comes to medicinal use.

Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) fosters this necessary international dialogue about practical experiences. "In Uruguay, our office has promoted the reform from the start together with its counterparts," says director Sebastian Sperling:

"We used its flexibility and contacts to establish the necessary working groups and a form a broad political coalition and then went on to commission research and to help develop a political strategy. Now that the implementation is on its way, we support its evaluation as well as ad-hoc meetings to overcome the many practical obstacles along the way."

An example of the results of FES’s regional work on drug policy in Latin America is captured in a joint publication (link in English) with the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) looking at the dynamic after the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. ###

To find out more about the work by FES Uruguay and partners visit the office website and follow them on facebook and twitter.

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