Cannabis enthusiasts in the United States dream of the day when the Federal Government catches up with the times and strikes down the current prohibition. But while many of us pine for full legalization, many more don't know that a model for government-sanctioned legalization already exists. Uruguay, the first country to legalize cannabis, continues to inform expectations of legalization in other nations. The roll-out of laws governing legal marijuana in Uruguay has been slow and deliberate. After several years, the system shows no sign of collapse. Here's everything you need to know about the recent history of marijuana in Uruguay.
The Seeds of Change
Anyone currently lighting up legal marijuana in Uruguay has one person to thank: Alicia Castilla. She was a peaceful woman who minded her own business. However, Uruguay's government took offense to her side gig as an author. Castilla wrote a book called Cultura Cannabis in 2004. Over the following six years, the book blossomed into a bestseller, greatly expanding the public's understanding of marijuana in Uruguay.
In 2011, the 66-year-old's idyllic existence was shattered by a violent raid. Fourteen police officers burst into Castilla's home, arrested her, and seized all her belongings. It turned out that Castilla was growing 29 illegal marijuana plants, and had 24 grams of usable cannabis.
Castilla compares her treatment to that of a "female version of Pablo Escobar". She tells of her filthy conditions and vermin infestations. The government's overreaction and the intolerable conditions Castilla suffered helped fan the fury of Uruguayans across the nation.
Marching for Marijuana
The public's approval of marijuana in Uruguay crystallized with the arrest and mistreatment of Alicia Castilla, and thousands took to the streets to protest for legalizing cannabis. As Castilla watched from behind prison bars, the landscape of marijuana in Uruguay began to change. In 2013, Uruguay legalized home cultivation of cannabis, and today there is a full regulatory system for recreational marijuana across the country.
What are Uruguay's Marijuana Laws?
The 2013 law established the framework for Uruguay's cannabis rules, even though marijuana sales did not begin until 2017. Here are the key points you need to know:
- Cultivation: Home growers can have up to six plants, but can't harvest more than 480 grams. This strangely specific rule has not seen focused enforcement thus far, and continues to irritate Uruguayans who argue that the country's legalization isn't a complete one.
- Clubs: Uruguayans can form cannabis clubs of 15 to 45 members if they want to pool their resources. Cannabis club members can withdraw 40 grams of cannabis per month from the club's stockpile.
- Retail: Retail cannabis is only available in government-regulated pharmacies. Citizens over the age of 18 can purchase up to 40 grams of cannabis per month.
Non-citizens cannot buy cannabis in Uruguay's pharmacies, but that doesn't stop intrepid tourists. You're still allowed to receive marijuana as a gift, and smoke it in public even if you're not a citizen. T
It's definitely a good thing people have such extensive access to marijuana in Uruguay, but that access is predicated on a worrisome caveat: Citizens must register with the government to grow or buy cannabis, or participate in a cannabis club. Every transaction is logged, and the government uses the data to keep an eye on consumption trends. In a country where distrust of the government runs deep, this invasive form of oversight led to a slow beginning when retail marijuana sales began last year.
When cannabis hit pharmacy shelves on July 19, 2017, only about 5,000 people had applied to Uruguay's recreational marijuana program. Many seemed wary of the government registry requirement, and were afraid they might be outed as pot smokers to their family and employers.
Pharmacies were reticent to joint the program, too. On the first day of retail sales, only 16 of Uruguay's estimated 1,000 pharmacies had signed up to sell cannabis – and not one was a major chain.
Fast forward to a year later, and the landscape is vastly different. A study by the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis shows that participation in the recreational cannabis program has skyrocketed.
- As of May 2018, about 35,000 people were registered and authorized to purchase cannabis.
The Institute's report has some other crucial takeaways to note, as well:
54 percent of Uruguayan cannabis users get their marijuana through the regulated market
Young people are leading the charge, with only 17 percent of registered participants over the age of 44
From July 2017 to May 2018, pharmacies sold 750,000 grams of cannabis
23,100 Uruguayans purchased cannabis from pharmacies
8,400 people have registered for home cultivation
2,500 citizens participated in 90 marijuana clubs
A Flat Market
The main mission for Uruguay in legalizing cannabis is to squash the black market. Its secondary goal, though, is to prevent usage of cannabis from skyrocketing. Because of this, the market for marijuana in Uruguay is tightly regulated and devoid of competition. Two companies produce all the cannabis in the country, and there's little incentive to refine or innovate due to the fixed price.
Consumers in Uruguay simply don't have access to the sheer variety of products available in legalized U.S. states. Forget crazy cannabis strains like Green Crack, or even celebrity strains like Markle Sparkle. In Uruguay, you're lucky to get something labelled as an indica or sativa. There's also the THC cap to contend with: the weed found in Uruguay maxes out at 9 percent THC. If that seems low, you'll be perplexed to learn for the first five months of legal sales, the maximum THC content was 2 percent!
Uruguay's caution in legalizing cannabis is understandable given its specific goal of curbing black market profits and crime. According to Latin American news source Telesur, drug-related crime plummeted nearly 20 percent by the end of 2017. Other countries are looking closely to Uruguay because clearly, parts of the strategy are working.
As for Castilla, she was released after three months incerceration. Her case was dismissed by the courts in 2016.