By Emily Ledger
Uruguay has become well known for its position as a global cannabis pioneer. The country owes this reputation to becoming the first country in the world to legalise the recreational use of cannabis. Since the legislation was introduced in 2014, only one other country, Canada, has legalised the drug at the federal level. However, the motion is being increasingly replicated in other countries around the world, including New Zealand and Luxembourg.
But, what has the legal Cannabis market in Uruguay looked like over five years, following the initial legalisation?
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 2015, 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 Uruguay to legalise Cannabis, are disappointed with the current system employed, including Alicia Castilla.
Customer and Cultivator Registries
When the law went into full effect in July 2015, citizens who choose to grow their own plants were required to register for a permit from the government. This permit would allow the cultivation of six plants.
Customers who wish to buy Cannabis products 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.
As legalisation took hold in 2015, the number of pharmacies registered 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.
Only two companies in Uruguay have been registered to grow recreational Cannabis for the commercial market. These products are sold to pharmacies – the only place customers can purchase the products.
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.