In recent years, Uruguay has become well-known for its position as a global cannabis pioneer. The country owes this reputation to the groundbreaking move to become the first country in the world to legalise the recreational use of cannabis.
The legislation that would introduce a legal market in the South American country was introduced in 2014 – though the conversation was sparked much earlier.
Since then, only one other country, Canada, has followed the move to legalise the drug at the federal level. However, the notion is being increasingly considered in other countries around the world, including New Zealand and Luxembourg.
We’re taking a look at the events that led to legalisation in Uruguay, and how the situation has evolved in the following years.
Why Did Uruguay Legalise Cannabis?
Prior to the legalisation of cannabis in Uruguay, consumption of the drug was never officially outlawed. Cultivation and supply of the plant, however, was forbidden – a contradiction that allowed the illegal cannabis market to thrive.
But in 2011, a single arrest appeared to spark an appetite for legislation reform across the country.
In July 2011, 66-year-old Author Alicia Castilla was greeted at her home by 14 armed police officers, and placed under custody for the cultivation of cannabis. Castilla insisted that her plants were for personal use, not for supply. Facing two to 10 years in prison, Castilla began making headlines across Uruguay as citizens protested her incarceration.
Castilla soon became known as the ‘Reefer Grandmother’, and legislators even started to bring draft cannabis legislation for her to review in prison.
The cultivation of cannabis was finally legalised in 2014. In July 2017, Uruguay became the first country in the world to allow cannabis sales across the whole territory.
Development of Uruguay’s Legal Cannabis Market?
Despite the country’s forward-thinking cannabis policies, Uruguay’s cannabis legislation has gained criticism. Some citizens who campaigned for legalisation are disappointed with the current system, including Alicia Castilla.
Customer and Cultivator Registries
When the law came into effect in July 2015, citizens who choose to grow their own plants were required to register for a permit from the government. This permit allows the cultivation of up to six plants.
Similarly, customers who wish to buy cannabis products from a legal retailer – which were available from July 2017 – must also be registered in a government database.
When purchasing cannabis, customers are required to scan a finger and thumb, which shows the retailer that they are permitted to purchase and that they haven’t exceeded their purchase limit.
A limit of 40g per month is enforced, with consumers who are seen to reach or exceed this limit being potentially referred to addiction treatment services or checked for illegally supplying to others.
As legalisation took hold in 2015, the number of pharmacies that applied for permission to sell cannabis products was extremely low.
In 2017, the Vice President of Uruguay’s Association of Pharmacists, Alejandro Antalich, “only 30 of the country’s 1,000 pharmacies [had] signed up to sell marijuana.”
Cannabis strains are limited and capped by the government. All legally available cannabis is not permitted to exceed a concentration of more than 9% THC.
The medical Cannabis market in Uruguay is also limited, with only one domestic company, Medicplast, having registered medical products. The raw materials for Medicplast’s products are imported from Switzerland.
Despite the shortcomings in the supply chain, the number of registered pharmacies has begun to grow, alongside the number of Cannabis clubs, customers, and home growers. As of the end of June 2019, there were 36,487 registered recreational Cannabis customers in the country.
The government has also opened a new application process which they hope will increase the number of recreational commercial cultivators in the country.
This month, lawmakers also revealed a proposal that would allow visitors to Uruguay to legally purchase cannabis products for the first time.
Under current regulations, tourists are still prohibited from purchasing cannabis in the country. However, as the first country in the world to legalise cannabis, many foreign consumers have flocked there – left only with the option of illegally sourcing products.
The sponsors of the proposal insist that the change is not designed to promote the consumption of cannabis but to deter more consumers from the enduring black market.