Last year, the Uruguayan government cried wolf a few times by announcing a date for cannabis pharmacy sales but fell short of delivering on that promise in 2016. Now, the country is within weeks of commencing pharmacy sales, completing their great global experiment of cannabis legalization and distribution which started with federal legalization in 2013.
As might be expected from this socialist democratic nation, the state has taken control of the process. Uruguayan natives and legal residents 18 years or older are eligible to register through the post office, leaving behind a digital fingerprint which will be used to identify buyers at pharmacies while they remain nameless. Regulating bodies have put into place safety measures to ensure registrants’ information doesn’t fall in the wrong hands.
In a country of mandatory voting and national ID cards, residents are used to the government having control of some very important information. On Tuesday, May 2, some 539 residents registered with the national system in order to buy marijuana next month. More current reports put the total number of registrants at 3,500. To put that figure in perspective, Uruguay has a population of almost 3.5 million, so registrants make up only 1 out of every thousand residents. However, to derive an accurate number of total users in the country, that number should be added to home growers representing over 5,000 registered and 27 cannabis clubs with up to 45 members each, according to daily newspaper, El País. In addition, many more wanting nothing to do with the state will never register with the government and still grow or buy from friends. They are just happy with more relaxed laws and no more reasons for law enforcement to pursue much of anything related to cannabis. El País estimates the number of Uruguayan users at 120,000, almost 3.5 percent of the population.
Only 30 pharmacies out of an estimated 1,000 – 1,200 will be selling the plant. For various reasons the vast majority of pharmacies opted out, many with “lingering concerns about safety” or the “type of clientele sales might attract,” according to Erly Patroni of Farmacia Trouville in the Punta Carretas neighborhood. Patroni balks at selling through the pharmacy saying, “How can we sell medicine without a prescription?” Even Patroni is in favor of legalization and personal liberty for which the country is becoming increasingly well known, just not sales through an official sales outlet. Buyers will be able to purchase a maximum of 10 grams per week and no more than 40 grams per month. Sales price is the equivalent of $1.30 per gram including a 10 percent tax to fund a small profit for pharmacies and a government education program. The price is seen as low enough to discourage the black market street sales of low quality cannabis from northern neighbor Paraguay. Unlike alcohol, which cannot be sold between the hours of 12 a.m. and 6 a.m., cannabis is available for purchase 24 hours a day, if the pharmacy selling it is open all day.
Through an open bid process, Symbiosis and ICCorp won the privilege, over 20 other companies, to grow cannabis on behalf of the federal government to supply pharmacies. Gastón Rodríguez Lepera is a college professor in the national college of design and a partner in the Simbiosys consortium. Rodríguez Lepera readily talks about his philosophy on cannabis legalization, “Cannabis has health and medical benefits that need to be studied,” he adds, “there are numerous Uruguayans who use the plant on a recreational basis, it is time for the country to face this and leave behind hypocrisy.” However, he won’t give details about Symbiosis’ grow operation, and doesn’t give tours. The company grows on federal property protected by the Uruguayan Army. Given the delay in pharmacy sales, the growers are rumored to have stockpiles of some of the 1,000 kilos each they will be supplying every year.
Implementation of cannabis sales has been a tough political issue for President Tabaré Vásquez in his second term, after a one term breather. Predecessor, Pepe Mujica, passed a bevy of cutting edge progressive initiatives including same-sex civil unions and marijuana legalization. Previous to cannabis legislation, Mujica reported that one-third of all prisoners were incarcerated for drug-related offenses. The current oncologist president has had trouble justifying the sale of smokeable cannabis through pharmacies after a landmark decision where the country became the first in the world to defeat Phillip Morris as a big tobacco foe providing a substance to be smoked that has harmed its residents.
Now with pharmacy sales on the horizon, Vásquez took his time coming up with a sales solution and methodology that would meet the original intent of this law to face the reality that Uruguayan citizens smoke the substance and Uruguay has a history of being a country with deep ports where drugs are smuggled in for larger markets in Argentina and Brazil. The government took great care in setting a price to discourage narcotrafficking as well as limit sales to natives and legal residents to turn away folks looking for “turismo cannábico.” There has been little hurry to pharmacy sales because of satisfied demand through home grows and cannabis clubs, which were legalized in September, 2014.
Through cannabis clubs, a membership is paid, the club grows up to 99 plants and the harvest is shared between up to 45 members. In Uruguay, one such club in the outskirts of Montevideo, has set the market club price for a non-taxed cannabis grow of modest scale at $1.45 per gram. Members pay between 1,400 and 2,000 pesos (the equivalent of $50-$70) for a monthly maximum amount of what can be legally acquired – 40 grams – also the amount residents can legally purchase each month through pharmacies. The friends, neighbors and acquaintances produce and consume their own in a collective using economies of scale to maximize resources and yield.
Over 5,000 “auto cultivadores” have legally registered with the state. Many more grow without registering. Self-growers satiated demand for cannabis while the Uruguayan bureaucracy grinded out an implementation plan for selling through pharmacies. Pharmacy sales are expected to commence in early July.