Remember when Uruguay legalized marijuana — but there wasn’t anywhere to actually, you know, buy this legal marijuana? The South American nation’s long-awaited, first-in-the world marijuana legalization becomes reality this summer, when government-registered pharmacies begin selling over-the-counter cannabis.
The small nation of 3.5 million people made international headlines in 2013, when its then-president, Jose “Pepe” Mujica — a former leftist guerrilla whose famously ascetic lifestyle included living in a simple farmhouse and using an aging Volkwagen Beetle as his official conveyance (which he drove) — announced that, along with same-sex marriage and abortion, Uruguay would also legalize marijuana, making it the first country in the world to do so at the national level.
Penalties for possessing the drug were dropped, and Mujica promised sales could commence as soon as 2014. That didn’t happen.
In the more than three years since, progress towards a regulated commercial market has been slow, in part because of reluctance on the part of Mujica’s successor as president.
Which is not to say that cannabis has been unavailable.
Since 2013, Uruguayans have been able to form cannabis clubs, nearly identical in both form and function to the first-generation medical marijuana dispensaries that sprang up in California in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Cultivation, consumption, and distribution are all legal — just not commercial sales — yet.
In the meantime, the UK Independent reports that pharmacies applied for government licenses to be able to sell the drug. Last week, officials with the National Drug Board announced that 16 pharmacies have received initial government position to stock cannabis on their shelves (right next to the pills and suppositories), with at least 14 more outlets expected to receive licenses in the coming months.
Pharmacy-grade cannabis should be a cut above marijuana found in the clubs: Cannabis producers who contract with pharmacies will need state licenses, and consumers will also need to register with the state.
The Uruguayan marijuana market will be nothing like the capitalist near-free-for-all seen in Colorado, the first state in the U.S. to allow commercial retail sales of marijuana to adults 21 and over. Uruguay’s pharmacies will be limited in supply to 400 kilos (882 pounds) to start, and customers will be limited to 5-gram purchases at a time — with a limit of 40 grams per month.
The price is also fixed, at a budget-friendly $1.30 per gram. That’s right: Uruguay is the home of the $6.50 eighth. But don’t go booking a plane ticket for Montevideo just yet.
Consistent with Mujica’s anti-capitalist roots — and the strong desires of many Uruguayans to keep cannabis away from capitalism — rather than embrace marijuana as the “next Gold Rush,” as we’ve done here in America, the drug will not be (legally) available to tourists.
Not to say that legalization in Uruguay hasn’t had international impact. Several other countries in South American have followed the country’s lead and eased restrictions on cannabis. And in North America, following eight U.S. states’ legalization, Canada will announce its plan to legalize marijuana nationally later this week.
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