Uruguay Takes New Step Toward Legal Marijuana Sales

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Uruguayan authorities have announced that they will soon establish a registry of marijuana users, the latest step in a long process of realizing historic drug policy reforms approved nearly three years ago that legalized the sale of the drug for recreational use. 

Uruguay’s National Drug Board (Junta Nacional de Drogas – JND) announced on September 7 that the government will begin this month the registration of marijuana users who wish to buy the drug in pharmacies, EFE reported.

Uruguay, which in 2013 became the first nation in the world to completely legalize recreational marijuana, has been working to create a legal framework for its commercial sale.

Diego Olivera, the secretary general of the JND, said the marijuana registry software is ready, but that final details regarding the delivery of cannabis to pharmacies needed to be resolved.

Around 40 pharmacies are currently registered to sell marijuana, although this number may increase, with the majority located in the capital city of Montevideo and nearby Canelones. According to El País, the government has estimated that legal marijuana production will total four tons, with each pharmacy having two kilos in stock. Users will be permitted to buy 10 grams per week, or 40 grams per month.

Despite the nearing of legal sales, Uruguayan authorities have continued to seize illicit marijuana shipments entering the country. On September 5, police confiscated 248 kilos of the drug that had entered Uruguay from Paraguay, and was being transported by a Paraguayan national. The seizure followed another on August 23, when Uruguayan authorities confiscated 153 kilograms of marijuana valued at roughly $34,400 in a truck that had been driven from Brazil by two Paraguayans.

Overall, Uruguay confiscated around 2,700 kilograms of marijuana in the first six months of 2016, surpassing the 2,500 kilos seized in all of 2015, according to government statistics.

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Uruguay’s landmark legalization of recreational marijuana in 2013 made international headlines. But despite the fanfare, designing a complex regulatory system for the drug’s sale and implementing legalization has proven a long and difficult process, which Uruguay has approached cautiously. 

However, this is not unusual. According to Geoffrey Ramsey, a research and communications associate with the Washington Office on Latin America and author of InSight Crime’s special Uruguay, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs, other governments that have passed marijuana reforms have also moved deliberately. For instance, the US state of Maryland legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2013, but sales have been delayed until 2017.

“You have to recognize [Uruguay] has made really important progress since the law was passed,” Ramsey told InSight Crime, noting that over a dozen cannabis clubs and several thousand individually licensed growers are now registered in a country where marijuana cultivation had no legal protection. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

Juan Andrés Roballo, the president of Uruguay’s JND, has said that legal marijuana supplies will be insufficient to meet expected demand. But Ramsey explained that this is a conscious choice by the Uruguayan government to avoid flooding sales points, at least initially. As such, there may be a period of adjustment where a portion of users continue to buy illegal marijuana, which is principally sourced from Paraguay.

Nonetheless, illicit Paraguayan marijuana has a reputation for poor quality, especially when compared to the legal variety, which Ramsey said would likely sway consumers away from the black market.

“Once Uruguayans get used to seeing marijuana sold commercially, the market for an inferior product will begin to vanish,” he said.

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