Uruguay Sells Marijuana In Pharmacies

By Justin Samuels

In 2013, Uruguay legalized marijuana.  It was the first nation in the world to completely legalize marijuana.  It was very contentious.  The government in Uruguay legalized marijuana to take revenues away from the black market.  The government also viewed all drug use as a public health and not a criminal matter.  So the decision was made to legalize and regulate cannabis.

A right wing movement lead by Luis Lacalle Pou that threatened to undo legalization in 2014 was defeated by the electing Tabare Vazquez, an oncologist who supported legalization.  So with legalization’s opponents defeated, the market was free to develop.  Legalization allowed Uruguayans to grow marijuana at home or to join cooperative clubs that farm it.  It set up a system of distribution that would ultimately allow marijuana to be sold in pharmacies.

On Wednesday, July 19th marijuana became available for purchase from pharmacies in Uruguay.  Sixteen pharmacies began dispensing, and 5,000 users registered to be able to make pharmacy purchases.  The national government has found a lucrative new source of income, and the pharmacy sector in Uruguay will grow as a result.  Cannabis can only be sold to Uruguay citizens. Uruguay didn’t want neighboring nations to blame it for drug tourism as their citizens would clearly be tempted to come where they can smoke freely.  Of course, nothing is going to stop people from buying cannabis off the street; the tourists will come and find ways of getting cannabis.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the way this has been implemented.  The Uruguayan government essentially made itself the only distributor of cannabis.  The cannabis sold in pharmacies is grown in government approved farms, and pharmacies are the only place where cannabis can be broadly sold.  People can join co-ops where marijuana is grown and sold or can grow their own marijuana, but still, legalization was clearly the government wanting to take the profits within the industry for itself.  This is certainly much better than prohibition, but I would argue the industry needs more space to grow and that the private sector should be allowed to handle this.  When you have private sector development, creativity, and innovation of use and products, including medical use is much more likely to take place than it would be if everything remained strictly done through government channels.  Still, this is a project in the works for Uruguay, and of course, activists will be fighting for change.

There is some innovation in Uruguay’s cannabis industry.  Yerba Mate is a beverage consumed in southern South America. One puts the dry yerba mate in a gourd or cup, pours water into it, let’s it soak and drinks the tea using a bombilla.  Yerba mate is a stimulant, and it contains alkaloids related to caffeine and cocaine.  Yerba mate is legal throughout the world.  Uruguayans are now prepared to sell yerba mate drinks infused with cannabis.

Ultimately this has enormous implications for the region as a whole.  With Uruguay legalizing recreational marijuana and putting in a formal distribution center, the region will be watching Uruguay to learn how they can implement these systems.  Medical marijuana is legal in Colombia and Mexico.