Leaves of Grass

Uruguay’s experiment with legalising cannabis

The 2013 law allows cultivation of 480 grams of cannabis per person per year. pablo porciuncula / afp / getty images
01 July, 2019

On a Sunday morning in March 2015, José Mujica, the president of Uruguay, left his farm in Rincón del Cerro, on the outskirts of Montevideo, for his office in the capital. That day, he was scheduled to hand over power to his successor, Tabaré Vázquez, a leader of the leftist Frente Amplio coalition. Vázquez had also been Mujica’s predecessor in government. As Mujica travelled the nineteen kilometres in his old Volkswagen Beetle, many Uruguayans saluted his passage.

After five years in the presidency, the former guerrilla was leaving office with an approval rating of 65 percent. His administration would be remembered for its social reforms—decriminalising abortion, authorising same-sex marriage and making Uruguay the first country in the world to legalise the cultivation and sale of cannabis, a peaceful initiative in a continent marked by violence in its fight against drug trafficking.

According to the latest report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, cannabis is the most consumed illegal drug in the world, with 190 million people using it. It is one of the oldest cultivated crops, having been used as a fibre twelve thousand years ago. The earliest evidence of its recreational and religious use dates back to the third millennium BCE. It was endemic to Central and South Asia, but soon spread through trade networks in Europe and Africa, and later, travelled with Spanish colonists to the Americas.

The systematic criminalisation of cannabis production and consumption began in the nineteenth century, as European powers colonised regions where recreational use of the drug was prevalent among natives. The United States established its first limitations on the sale of cannabis in 1906. In 1961, US hegemony over the post-war world led to the imposition of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. In addition to opium and coca—and their derivatives—the convention banned synthetic drugs and, for the first time, cannabis. An international regime of criminal sanctions was created to restrict the production, supply and use of over a hundred substances, classified in four lists according to their degree of danger to health. A decade later, the US president Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” and pointed to the abuse of narcotics as “public enemy number one.” The drug war continues today, and has given rise to a militarisation of the police and a policy of mass incarceration in the United States.

Latin America is a major drug producer—Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are the world’s largest producers of coca and its derivatives, while Mexico and Paraguay are the leading producers of cannabis in the Americas. For fifty years, drug policy in Latin American countries has been dictated by the United States, which has militarised the problem with catastrophic human costs in Mexico and Colombia. Further, it has failed to reduce the production, trafficking and consumption of narcotics. Throughout the continent, people are questioning the effectiveness of this strategy, and spearheading alternate drug policies that reduces addiction and confronts organised crime.

Uruguay banned the sale of narcotic drugs in 1934. For most of the twentieth century, it stuck to punitive legislation regarding drug consumption. However, a 1998 law decriminalised personal consumption of narcotics, even as it prohibited production and sale. In 2001, Jorge Batlle, then the president of Uruguay, publicly advocated the legalisation of drugs. Gervasio Guillot, a minister of the supreme court of justice, proposed regulating “soft drugs such as marijuana, whose use is widespread, to see what happens to the others.” Batlle’s successor, Vázquez, was in favour of debating the issue. During his term, several civil-society organisations created a national coordination committee to advocate for the legalisation of cannabis.

In 2012, two years after Mujica won the presidency, his government proposed legalising and regulating the cannabis market, with an emphasis on health and safety. The project sought to segment the drug market, so that the country’s roughly hundred and fifty thousand cannabis consumers would not access other drugs, and would avoid contact with the illegal marijuana trade, which amounted to about thirty million dollars a year. Mujica was asked whether legalisation was not too daring a step. “We have to find another way, and some may find this way too bold,” he replied. When it came to ending decades of criminalisation, he said, “Someone has to be first.”

The implementation of the 2013 law, which resulted from this proposal, was gradual. In the second half of 2014, the register of domestic growers and clubs was opened. According to the state agency responsible for regulating the cannabis market, there are over seven thousand self-cultivators and over a hundred registered cannabis clubs. Home cultivation is authorised for personal consumption, with a maximum of six plants and an annual harvest of 480 grams. The clubs—which were not included in the initial draft of the 2013 law, but included at the insistence of civil society—produce cannabis for use by members, and are allowed to grow up to 99 plants, with a maximum production of 480 grams per member per year.

El Cogollo Alegre—literally, “the cheerful bud”—is a cannabis club located in Montevideo. It has 30 members, some of whom pay a reduced fee in exchange for six hours of monthly work. “One of the advantages of being a member of a club is the possibility of undertaking the enterprise collectively, with more attention devoted to the plant, reducing the likelihood of crop failure,” one of the club’s founding members told me, on condition of anonymity.

On 19 July 2017, pharmacies began selling cannabis. There are 17 licensed pharmacies today, and over thirty thousand registered purchasers, according to the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis. Registered purchasers can buy a maximum of ten grams of cannabis a week, at a price that is a third of what it costs on the black market. Two private companies have been authorised to grow and distribute four tonnes of cannabis a year through the pharmacies. However, Monitor Cannabis, a research team from the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, estimates that Uruguay consumes thirty-five tonnes a year, significantly higher than the maximum production authorised by the law. The black market, therefore, continues to operate.

“It is true that the illegal market subsists, but it has to adapt,” Marcos Baudean, a Monitor Cannabis researcher, told me. He said that the prensado variety—blocks of up to 25 grams that contain compressed marijuana adulterated with chemicals—that were the usual and cheapest variety before legalisation, “occupies a very secondary place in consumption” today, as consumers prefer the buds being sold legally. “The state is looking to expand the legal market, but with little success, due to financial problems,” Baudean said.

Two weeks after the sale of cannabis began in pharmacies, some private banks closed several pharmacies’ bank accounts, since international financial regulations prohibit operating with funds from the trade of illegal substances. Most pharmacies currently operate through the personal accounts of their owners. “To meet the demand, not only is more production needed, but more points of sale that cover the entire national territory,” Mercedes Ponce de Léon, the spokesperson for Expocannabis, the most important cannabis trade fair in Uruguay, told me. Of the 17 accredited pharmacies, seven are located in Montevideo, and nine of the country’s 19 provinces do not have a pharmacy.

There are two companies authorised to operate in the market for medicinal marijuana, which is used by around forty thousand people, according to a poll conducted by Monitor Cannabis, in 2017. The poll revealed that a third of these users purchased cannabis through illegal routes, while another third self-cultivated—both avenues have little quality control. “There was no registered product until the end of 2017,” Gustavo Robaina, a Monitor Cannabis researcher, told me. “From the initiative of growers and interested people began the artisanal production of cannabis oil.” Although the government instituted a license to sell cannabis products with oil imported from Switzerland, the imports are expensive and difficult to process. “The clandestine production was generalised and its existence tolerated, given the persistent difficulties for accessible medical-quality products,” Robaina said.

Baudean told me that since the implementation of the 2013 law had been partial, “no definitive judgements can be made about the impact of the regulation.” According to the Monitor Cannabis poll, a majority of the population was in favour of legalisation and regulation for the first time, in comparison to the sixty to seventy percent who were opposed to it in polls conducted between 2012 and 2015. When I asked Eduardo Blasina, an agribusiness consultant and founder of the Cannabis Museum of Montevideo, what the Uruguayan experiment’s biggest contribution to the debate on regulated drug markets had been, he said it revealed “that there are alternatives to repression that work better, and that this option can generate economic development.”