We’ve all heard the story of ‘The Little Engine That Could’, well Uruguay is ‘The Little Country That Did’. On July 19 2017, Uruguay became the first country to fully legalize the commercial sale and home cultivation of cannabis.
“ Contribution to Humanity”
The South American Country took unprecedented steps in the hope that their experiment – intended to be socially protective rather than evidence-based – would reduce the profit that drug trafficking creates for organized crime and the violence and problems related to it. However, are readily willing to revoke the laws if results fall by the wayside.
The Uruguayan government’s stance on legalization of the plant isn’t entirely new. Since 1974, the country has decriminalized the use and possession of all drugs, allowing its citizens to hold ‘minimal’ amounts of illicit substances. It wasn’t until an incident in 2011 that created massive social movement proved the catalyst for change to push Uruguay to legalize cannabis.
Uruguay, The Little Country That Did
“The Reefer Grandmother”
On a quiet Sunday afternoon Alicia Castilla, a timid 66-year-old and author of best seller “Cultura Cannabis” was arrested in her garden while watering her 29 cannabis plants. A team of 14 armed officers and 5 patrol cars raided her home, seizing everything from her computers, books, mobile phone and 24g of her own marijuana supply. She was taken to a nearby police station, in a small town called Canelones, and her imprisonment became national news.
Although possession of drugs was legal and the consumption had never been outlawed, ‘minimal’ amounts had never been specified and this discrepancy was the loophole that led to Castilla’s arrest. The eldest of 120 fellow inmates she became somewhat a jailhouse celebrity, and quickly earned the nickname ‘The Reefer Grandmother’, a signature soon picked up by the press.
Facing between 2 and 10 years in prison thousands marched in protest of her arrest and detainment. She spent a long 3 months of being inside a foul-smelling, rat-infested prison. Due to continued support from protesters, her ordeal finally prompted the beginnings of legalized cannabis cultivation.
Uruguay Cannabis Legalization
Since the full legalization of cannabis the tiny country has continued to review and reform its laws around cannabis and how it is distributed and grown.
As of this day residents (not available to foreigners) are permitted to buy up to 40g of cannabis per month from the government via registered pharmacies only. At only $1.30 per gram (UK street prices for 1g is allegedly £10) the price undercuts black-market drug trafficking by almost 60%. They are also allowed to cultivate a maximum of 6 crops per year at their own home, with laws in place prohibiting its movement across international borders.
So how do they regulate this Cannabis Legalization?
This is where things get very interesting. To be able to buy marijuana from local pharmacies or cultivate it at home, customers must register with the government first. They are then required to identify themselves with a digital thumb scan within the pharmacy before they can withdraw their weekly maximum of 10g.
According to the Cannabis Regulation and Control Institute, 5000 people have signed up to the national registry and 6700 to be home growers since the new laws came into effect.
Consumers can choose from two varieties of marijuana; Alpha 1 and Beta 1 – both containing 2% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) which is the psychoactive component of the plant. The product retails at around 187 Uruguayan pesos per 5 grams – that’s the equivalent of £5 here in the UK and pharmacies obtain the marijuana from state-supervised fields.
Bump in the Road
Things are never quite that simple when it comes to Cannabis legalization. Although pharmacies thrived through the demand for the plant and the Uruguayan government seeing some suggested correlation in the decrease in illegal trafficking, hurdles were thrown in the way by the shape of the American Banks.
Following the introduction of the Patriot Act 2011, is it prohibited for American Financial Institutions to be in partnership with ‘dealers’ of controlled substances. Institutions such as Bank of America have since threatened to stop business relationships with smaller banks in Uruguay. Supporters of the legal market in Uruguay has described this intervention as counterproductive.
The threat of losing the support of such banks has resulted in around 15 of the licensed pharmacies in Uruguay to withdraw themselves from the register and quit selling the nationally legal drug. 20 more are considering similar actions until further reforms or a solution is found.
One small step for Uruguay, one giant leap for cannabis.
Officials in Uruguay have spent many years developing a unique infrastructure to allow its citizens to safely buy and consume state-controlled marijuana – with fighting illegal trafficking one of their main objectives. The government’s progressive stance on cannabis sales and cultivation is one that allows complete control of the movement of cannabis. The legal structure is designed to undercut black market sales and ultimately move towards eradicating illicit sales within its borders.
Although they now face complications based on legislation in the US, it is a brave if not encouraging step to new laws being considered elsewhere. Providing fresh footfall in the journey towards cannabis reforms worldwide, Uruguay is at the forefront of a radical yet potentially revolutionary movement……….Uruguay, we Salute you!
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