URUGUAY — Uruguay was the first country to legalize recreational marijuana, doing so in 2013. However, only 14 pharmacies in the country have registered to sell legal medical marijuana in Uruguay, according to CBS News. Uruguay has at least 1,200 pharmacies, and many owners fear robbery and competition with the black market.
The country began the government-regulated industry to combat the increasing violence associated with drug cartels and illegal drug trafficking, but the violence has only increased. Fifty-nine percent of the total homicides in the country were related to fights between drug cartels.
“There have never been as many drug traffickers and drug violence as today,” said the former President Julio Maria Sanguinetti.
Uruguay's high demand for marijuana is also an issue, according to Diego Olivera, the head of the Uruguay National Drugs Council.
“The demand is greater than our productive capacity,” he said. “We have to address that challenge.”
There are only two companies in the nation that have licenses to cultivate the country's marijuana supply. The total amount of produced marijuana allowed by current regulations is four tons. Officials were unable to produce that amount until recently because farmers were inexperienced in cultivating such large amounts of produce.
"There was no experience with farming on a large scale and it took a while to finally nail the technology, the workforce, and the drying process,” Olivera said, adding that the black market will gradually be eliminated, but that it wouldn't happen overnight.
8 of 19 Provinces Sell Marijuana in Uruguay
People in Uruguay are allowed to buy up to 1.4 ounces of weed per month at a pharmacy, but one employee said that the weekly deliveries at his pharmacy are a kilogram less than it is supposed to be due to the shortage. Uruguay has 19 provinces but only 8 of them have pharmacies that sell marijuana. At least 147,000 people reportedly use marijuana in Uruguay, but only 35,000 are registered for legal marijuana.
Olivera says that the country consumes up to 25 metric tons of marijuana every year, which is three times the amount that the country has produced legally. The number of people registered to purchase marijuana at pharmacies rose from 4,959 to 24,117 in one years' time.
Quantity isn't the only issue with legal marijuana and some people are complaining that the quality is also inadequate. Jose Luis Bertullo said that he would not buy marijuana again from a pharmacy after purchasing the drug, citing its potency. He said he will register with the state and instead grow his own plants. Individuals are allowed to grow a maximum of six plants, and collectives with at least 45 members are permitted to grow 99 plants.
The lack of pharmacies significantly contributes to the marijuana shortage. Washington drug policy expert on Latin America John Walsh said pharmacies are not willing to risk losing accounts with American banks.
“When it becomes a question of either selling cannabis or keeping your bank account, then, of course, most of these pharmacies are choosing the latter,” he said.
The Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis in Uruguay said only about 50 percent of pot consumers in the country can get marijuana legally due to the lack of pharmacies willing to sell marijuana. U.S. banking laws affect Uruguay because the country uses American banks to route global transactions. Because the drug isn't yet legal in the U.S., many Uruguayan pharmacies have to deal with cash only, which causes pharmacies to be vulnerable to robberies.
Olivera said that although the demand for marijuana exceeds the countries capacity to produce the drug, they are addressing the issue.