As Canada awaits, Uruguay's legal cannabis project provides benchmark

Things seem to be going well in the country of 3.5-million people, just 10% that of Canada's population. (Reuters)

Things seem to be going well in the country of 3.5-million people, just 10% that of Canada's population. (Reuters)

As Canada prepares on Wednesday to become only the second country in the world to legalise the use of marijuana, experts in Uruguay say its pioneering move three years ago helped to reduce drug trafficking in the South American nation.

While the public initially rejected the project first introduced by iconic leftist president Jose Mujica, who was in power from 2010-2015, attitudes have gradually changed, with the population now largely supportive of the move.

Uruguay legalised the production, distribution and sale of marijuana for recreational purposes in December 2013, before allowing the drug to be sold in pharmacies from July 2017.

Things seem to be going well in the country of 3.5-million people, just 10% that of Canada’s population.

There are three ways to access cannabis in Uruguay: growing it at home, with a limit of six plants per person; growing it in a club as part of a cooperative; or buying it in the pharmacy.

Fear-mongers who predicted the project would lead to a deluge of doped-up layabouts have so far been proved wrong, according to Monitor Cannabis.

The academic group that studies the government’s marijuana project says that cannabis use has “shown an increase that isn’t extraordinary with respect to the trend” observed prior to legalisation.

The main difference between the illegal and legal periods is that it has become easier to track the evolution of marijuana usage.

Official statistics from the Cannabis Regulation and Control Institute (IRCCA) show that 54% of those who consume cannabis regularly do so through legal means, something that previously wasn’t available to them.

Four types of marijuana are available in Uruguay, sold in five gram packets costing $1.40 per gram. Registered users — either citizens or foreign residents — can buy up to 40 grams a month.

Logistical difficulties

It’s not been entirely plain-sailing, though, logistically.

There have been many challenges, from problems with harvests to banking system limitations imposed on companies working in the cannabis sector due to United States legislation.

But Uruguay has 7 000 registered cultivators, 107 cooperative production clubs, 28 500 registered buyers and 17 distributor pharmacies.

The banking restrictions, a fear of attracting crime due to the presence of drugs in stores, and the simple opposition of some pharmacists to the project has resulted in only a small number of pharmacies opting to sell marijuana.

But between July 2017 and July 2018, 100% of the 1 200 kilograms  of marijuana produced was sold to the public.

Buyers would even queue up outside pharmacies once stocks were replenished, alerted by the pharmacists themselves.

Production, though, is not satisfying demand, meaning some people continue buying the drug through illegal means, even when they would rather not.

“The priority is to increase the system’s reach,” sociologist Sebastian Aguiar says in his publication: “A year of advances and opportunities.”

If every registered buyer could purchase the maximum allocation of 40 grams, “50% of the total annual demand for cannabis would be taken from the illegal market, equivalent to $22.5-million.”

That’s especially relevant since, when presenting his plan, Mujica said the legalisation strategy was aimed at combating illegal drug trafficking.

However, not everyone wants to encourage greater use of marijuana.

President Tabare Vazquez launched a campaign on October 1 called “Regulating is being responsible,” which aims to provide education about “the risks, effects and potential damages” provoked by the use of cannabis.

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Mauricio Rabuffetti

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