Uruguay’s grand plan to legalise marijuana involves vast government regulation and fingerprint scanners at pharmacies

Uruguayans say their model is designed to strike a balance between prohibition and the kind of exuberant marijuana economy emerging in some US states

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 July, 2017, 9:36am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 July, 2017, 9:10pm

In coming weeks, cannabis-seeking citizens in this small South American nation will be able to walk into a pharmacy and buy government-approved marijuana for the state-mandated price of US$1.30 a gram. No questions asked. No doctor’s note required.

If that sounds like an attempt to create a stoner republic on the south Atlantic, would-be tourists should know a few things.

Uruguay is the world’s first country to fully legalise the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. But under its strict rules, there will be no Amsterdam-style smoking cafes, and foreigners won’t have access to the national stash.

The risk of what they’re doing in Colorado is that you end up with something like the tobacco industry
Julio Calzada, public health official

Nor will there be shops selling ganja candies, psychedelic pastries or any of the other edible derivatives offered in pot-permissive US states such as Colorado and Washington, where entrepreneurial capitalism fertilises the US’s incipient marijuana industry.

Instead, Uruguay’s government has developed a legalisation model with an apparent goal of making marijuana use as boring as possible. A vast regulatory bureaucracy will determine everything from the genetic makeup of the plants to the percentage of psychoactive compounds in their flowers.

Canada, Mexico, Colombia and other nations across the Americas also are moving to legalise cannabis on a limited basis. But only Uruguay has set up a comprehensive system to regulate every facet of the plant’s life cycle, from tiny seed to smoky haze.

Uruguayans say their model is designed to strike a balance between prohibition and the kind of exuberant marijuana economy emerging in some US states, where well-funded businesses may have incentives to encourage consumption.

In Uruguay, anything that smacks of commercial marijuana branding or advertising is banned. The two private firms authorised to supply the pharmacies with industrial quantities of dope – four tons annually – can’t even put their company labels on the packaging.

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“The risk of what they’re doing in Colorado is that you end up with something like the tobacco industry,” said Julio Calzada, one of the public health officials who designed Uruguay’s regulatory model after lawmakers approved legalisation in 2013.

He said the country won’t allow a competitive industry peddling pot versions of Marlboro and Camel. “The concept here is totally different,” he said. “To us, marijuana is a vegetable substance with a capacity to generate addiction, so what we’re trying to do is control the production, distribution and consumption of that substance as effectively as possible.”

It’s no fluke that this is happening in socially liberal Uruguay. Gambling and prostitution are legal and regulated there. Uruguay is also the only Latin American nation outside Cuba that has broadly legalised abortion, and it was one of the first to recognise civil unions and adoption by same-sex couples.

Uruguay also is accustomed to relatively high levels of regulation and a big state role in the economy, with an array of government-owned banks, gas stations and utilities. Over the years, activists began to argue: why not weed?

The experiment is not without sceptics and detractors – one reason it has taken longer than expected to fully implement the country’s legalisation model. Marijuana cultivation and consumption has been allowed for personal use, and the country now has at least 60 cannabis clubs that provide members with a monthly supply. But the government has been slow to roll out its system of pharmacy-based commercial sales to the general population.

Uruguay has an opportunity to become in cannabis what Switzerland is for chocolate or France is for wines
Marco Algorta, cannabis club founder

Still, Uruguayan officials say the nation’s pharmacies will be stocked with cannabis sachets and ready to begin dealing in the second half of July. The newly created Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) will coordinate distribution.

Anyone over age 18 who registers in a government database will be able to buy up to 40 grams per month at one of three dozen participating commercial pharmacies. Instead of showing ID, buyers will place their thumb on a scanner that links to a government database and tells the pharmacy how much marijuana they are eligible to purchase.

Nearly 4,500 Uruguayans have registered for the system, according to the IRCCA website, and officials are expecting that number to increase substantially once marijuana users realise that the product sold in pharmacies is vastly superior to the low-grade weed sold illegally on the streets.

Some marijuana users have chafed at the idea of registering with the government. But even legalisation advocates concede that such a safeguard is necessary to prevent traffickers from buying up pharmacy stocks and smuggling Uruguay’s crop into Brazil and Argentina, the country’s much-larger neighbours.

“A lot of consumers here don’t like the fingerprint system and point out that they don’t have to do anything like that to buy a bottle of wine,” Martín Fernández, a human rights attorney in Montevideo who has become an expert on the country’s cannabis law. “But we see it as something transitional that could disappear with time.”

Officials say the new system will drain away customers from the black-market marijuana economy, where a kind of pot known as “Paraguayan Pressed” predominates. It’s similar to cheap, low-potency marijuana that reaches US streets from Mexico and is cultivated on large outdoor farms. The final product is littered with seeds and plant stems.

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Its levels of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient, are typically below 5 per cent, while the state-approved version soon to be sold in pharmacies will be available in seedless flowers (“buds”) at strengths of 5 and 10 per cent THC, according to Eduardo Blasina, an agronomist who set up one of the two growing operations on state-leased land adjacent to the country’s maximum-security prison.

“It’s one of the most secure places in the country,” he said.

Marco Algorta, who started one of the country’s first clubs, said that he and several of his fellow founders come from prominent Uruguayan families and that this has helped their young industry gain acceptance in elite circles. Now he wants the government to create the legal infrastructure for marijuana-derivative businesses to take off.

“Uruguay has an opportunity to become in cannabis what Switzerland is for chocolate or France is for wines,” Algorta said. “We need to stop seeing it as a drug and start seeing it as an industry.”