MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – After several unforeseen developments and delays, Uruguay’s initiative to legalize and regulate the cultivation and consumption of marijuana domestically through licensed pharmacies finally began this week as customers lined up to make their purchases in the capital Montevideo and elsewhere.
Throughout the South American nation, 16 pharmacies are officially listed as certified vendors of marijuana, packaged in small bags that add up to a maximum of 40 grams per month.
Given that a significant minority of the local population was against the initiative from the beginning and that the United Nations is still voicing its displeasure with the development, the marijuana itself is of a “lower strength” with its tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content, the main psychoactive element of marijuana, hovering between 2 and 4 percent.
Furthermore, the specific strain officially sold in Uruguay has its unique characteristics and cultivation methods so that it is easily recognized and thus, easier to detect in the unexpected instance of trafficking.
Grown and processed on grounds patrolled by the military and away from the eyes of the media, the marijuana is transported to the participating pharmacies under heavy security.
Once it is ready for sale, the customer, already having registered in a national registry, completes their purchase by quickly confirming their fingerprints through small, one-touch devices operating at all 16 pharmacies, ensuring anonymity and security. In the coming days, 14 more pharmacies will begin marijuana sales, open only to locals.
The price of the average packet, usually measuring in at five grams, is 187 Uruguayan pesos (6.50 dollars and 5.7 euros), meaning the average price per gram is 37.4 Uruguayan pesos (1.30 dollars and 1.14 euros). On the first day of legal sales, official data showed that over 5,000 people made purchases throughout the nation of 3.4 million.
The other part of the initiative, the self-cultivation through a network of 63 cannabis clubs (and 7,000 registered growers) with a maximum of six plants per person, has been functioning since 2014 with no incidents.
In fact, Spanish daily El País, citing the Faculty of Social Sciences of Uruguay’s University of the Republic, said that the “existence of the cannabis clubs and the self-cultivation legalization has led local drug traffickers to lose over 20 percent of their hold on the illicit market.”
The sale of marijuana finally began after years of delays, with the most recent bump coming in March of 2015 when Tabaré Vázquez was sworn in as the leader of Uruguay.
Vázquez, 79, ruled the South American nation from 2005 to 2010, and was constitutionally barred from running again. He was succeeded by center-left Broad Front (FA) colleague José Mujica and the two men switched positions again in 2015.
Vázquez inherited a number of programs and initiatives ushered in by Mujica, including the plan to legalize and regulate marijuana cultivation and consumption domestically.
With the stress placed upon the State in such a massive undertaking in making major changes to national policy, especially to a “tiny” nation like Uruguay, as Mujica put it, Vázquez thought it is wise to tread slowly and lightly.
Milton Romani, named head of the National Drug Board by Vázquez, said that “in passing the law, our government did not impose any deadlines on its implementation as we do not want to make any mistakes and thus, we are not handling this in terms of timing but in terms of safeguards so that the transition occurs as smoothly as possible.”
“The President was quite clear that everything is still on track to continue as planned, just on a different timetable. People need not confuse our wish for more care and attention to the program with a cancellation of any sort,” he said.
Since then, developments were few and far between but a breakthrough was made in May when the registry of customers was finally opened.
The initiative dates back to late 2012 when Julio Calzada, a close ally of Mujica and then-head of the National Drug Board, spoke with the leader of the nation about a possible change in policy following several drug-related killings in Montevideo, a traditionally calm and peaceful city in a traditionally calm and peaceful nation, that shocked the public.
A week before the end of 2013, Mujica passed into law the bill that is meant to oversee and regulate the production and sale of cannabis in order to curb drug trafficking and other related crimes, and to minimize health risks associated with illegal marijuana and its possibly harmful ingredients.
Mujica, now a Senator, has been humble about the venture, called it an “experiment” and asked for global support in its implementation. “Uruguay would serve as a living laboratory in which the world could learn about the legalization of marijuana,” Mujica said.
He admitted that the “experiment” is not perfect nor is it without flaws or the possibility for major problems, but it is an attempted “attack on the black market” via the establishment of a rival but legal market, not through a “government or military intervention like we have seen before.”
He continued: “It is in this vein that we passed the law; there are no guarantees of success, but if you do not experiment at all, that automatically condemns you to failure. The world has already seen that the path of repression has failed. Our bill is not a defense of marijuana as, of course, no vice is good, but rather a way to simply face the modern reality of drug trafficking and its consequences.”
The United States has dictated the “War on Drugs” in the region since the Reagan years. This means that hundreds of thousands of people across Latin America are imprisoned every year for petty crimes related to drug use, growth and/or production and possession, putting even more stress on Latin America’s notoriously overcrowded and overburdened judicial and prison systems.
The region, however, has grown weary of the vast amounts of resources used on combating drugs and the subsequent violence. The hardline anti-drug policies have not decreased drug use on a personal level in the US or Latin America since their inception, and the failed results that the policy has produced is another driving force behind the changing tide of political opinion on legalization across the region.