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Uruguay Legalization Update

In 2013, the small South American country became the first nation in the world to legalize marijuana.

By Amanda Reiman

In early November, I attended the Marijuana Business Conference in Las Vegas. The event provided great insight into where the cannabis industry is going in the U.S., and gave more attention to advocacy than most business conferences. Spoiler alert: Cannabusiness is moving further away from the consumer and closer to the CEO. I found myself constantly wanting to ask the nicely dressed business-people with their gigantic, expensive displays, “Do you even use cannabis?”

This model of industry should surprise no one. This is, after all, America. In our consumption culture, capitalism transforms customers into dollar signs, and relies on blurring the line between “want” and “need.” The American cannabis industry will be no different. I didn’t “need” that gold Pax 2, but I certainly wanted it.

Some argue that the infusion of capitalist imperatives into this new industry is a reason to keep prohibition going. That, of course, is absurd, given the harms of cannabis prohibition that fall disproportionately on poor people of color. But it does raise the question: What would legalization look like in a parallel universe? What if there was no industry, except to facilitate individual cultivation and consumption? What if cannabis legalization in America really could take down capitalism and become the first U.S. industry by and for the consumer? Well, if that were the case, it might look something like Uruguay, which became the first country to legalize cannabis in 2013.

For decades, cannabis legalization was a non-starter in the global discussion of health and social justice. While residents and visitors to Amsterdam have enjoyed de facto legalization for some time, no country had ever fully legalized it. This is mostly due to the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which forbids all signatory countries from legalizing drugs on the restricted list, except for medical or research purposes. For more than 50 years, this treaty was enough to stifle discussions of legalization.

UruguayFinalMAPHowever, in 2013, a bold declaration came from a small South American country. Not only had Uruguay signed the Single Convention, they, like many other countries, had also agreed to the Universal Declaration of Rights 65 years earlier, in 1948. Uruguay announced that their compliance with the Declaration of Human Rights was in conflict with their inability to legalize and regulate cannabis. The president at the time, José Mujica, had led several progressive policy changes, including legalizing abortion in 2012 and gay marriage in 2013.

The former guerilla leader continued to show that he was a president of and for the people by expressing his belief that arresting citizens for cannabis use and perpetuating the violent illicit market was in violation of his country’s responsibilities under the Declaration of Human Rights. He contended that the nation could not uphold both treaties, so the government decided to break with the Single Convention, and passed legislation legalizing cannabis in Uruguay.

Interestingly, at first, the citizens of Uruguay were not pushing for legalization. However, since it occurred, interest has grown in the medical and therapeutic uses of cannabis, and the ability to conduct novel research without the restrictions faced in the States.


Uruguay’s New Rules

In 2013, I was invited to speak at a government-sponsored medical cannabis symposium in Uruguay’s capital city, Montevideo. Cannabis was already legal for adults at the time; Uruguay was not only the first country to legalize it for adult use, but also the first to legalize it without previously legalizing medical use. While legalization in the U.S. traditionally takes the top-down approach, by licensing commercial entities at the state level, Uruguay is utilizing the bottom-up approach instead.

Adults in Uruguay can access cannabis in three ways: 1) They can grow up to six plants; 2) They can belong to a private club where members have access to cannabis grown by the group for the group (akin to traditional cannabis collectives and cooperatives in California); 3) They can purchase it from a pharmacy.

Each user must register with the government and select one of the three methods to obtain their cannabis. The government will be licensing producers and pharmacies. However, more than two years into legalization, the only access to marijuana continues to be via personal cultivation and private club memberships; consumers 18 and older can participate in home cultivation, or become members of social clubs that allow the growing of up to 99 plants at one time per each club. Two producers have been licensed, but the product (said to be priced at $1 per gram) is not yet available for commercial sale. So, cannabis in Uruguay remains a personal issue, largely untouched by large institutions.

Many of the clubs are actively engaged in medical cannabis advocacy, especially around access for children. The first such club to be officially recognized in 2014 was the Association of Cannabis Studies, founded by activist Laura Blanco.

The impact of this rollout was very noticeable when I returned to Montevideo in December to participate as a speaker at Uruguay’s second annual Cannabis Expo. The expo’s goals were to educate people about the cannabis plant and the science behind it; to allow the cannabis clubs to promote themselves; to highlight NGOs (non-governmental organizations) doing important work around medical cannabis access and other social-justice issues; to provide physician access for those looking to become medical cannabis patients; and, yes, to have fun.

Touring the Town

Montevideo is home to 1.3 million people, comprising about one-third the population of Uruguay. It’s considered to have a high quality of life, and is also the continent’s most gay-friendly city. Montevideo sits at the mouth of the Río de la Plata, which leads into the South Atlantic Ocean. It’s similar to San Francisco, with a spectacular bay and ocean views. This time, I rented a bicycle and spent a few hours pedaling along La Rambla on the coast.

Uruguay is located on the southeastern coast of South America, nestled between Brazil to the North and Argentina to the East. Due to its position in the Southern Hemisphere, it was summer during my December visit. The 82-degree weather and 8:30 p.m. sunsets were heaven. Uruguay does not get too many American tourists, which makes it easier to experience the true culture. However, given that traditional Uruguayan culture involves a lot of meat consumption, this vegan survived on cheese-less pizza and French fries.

My favorite things about Montevideo, besides the legal cannabis, are its affinity for ’80s American music and vintage dog breeds. There’s also free Wi-Fi everywhere.

Building a Simpler Expo

ExpoboothThe first thing I noticed in the expo hall at Montevideo’s LATU was the large number of flowering cannabis plants on display, illustrating the differences between various strains. It reminded me of California circa 2002, when Oaksterdam was a neighborhood and cannabis was still a nascent movement. Most of the market focus back then was on the consumer: Cannabis expos in San Francisco and elsewhere included booths with pipes and bongs, and T-shirts and hats sporting pot leaves and “420.” People at those events were cannabis consumers, many for decades, finally enjoying the ability to openly consume and socialize together. Legalization was on everyone’s mind, but not in the way we talk about it now. FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) was always a fixture, as was WAMM (Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana); now they’ve been supplanted by software companies, industrial grow systems and extraction machines.

The Uruguay expo offered a science exhibit where attendees could view various strains under a microscope, and they also had information on terpines and the medical action of cannabinoids. There were lab folks on hand to talk about the various exhibits and videos on display. My favorite display was a comparison of cannabis oil made from plants obtained from a club vs. product obtained on the street. As personal cultivation is popular, many consumers were on the lookout for exotic seeds and clones.

Booths representing the cannabis clubs were interspersed with companies selling personal cultivation systems, and purveyors of the usual T-shirts, pipes and other stoner gear. The Uruguay Cannabis Business Association had two large cannabis plants on its table; next to them was the Cannabis Museum booth, which was focused on educating consumers and the public.

Physicians on call saw hundreds of people who wanted to become medical cannabis patients. Most of the attendees were from Uruguay, but they also came from Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Speakers covered a wide range of topics, including how to be a better cultivator, how to start a cannabis club and the medical uses of cannabis. Absent were business presentations on marketing, branding, investing, economic growth and banking. In the midst of it all, Andrew Tosh, son of the legendary Peter Tosh, arrived to speak to the crowd, and then played a concert, after which he personally bid farewell to each attendee as they left.

Smoking was not allowed in the expo hall, but just outside, in the chill-out area, attendees inhaled joints as they relaxed and listened to DJs and bands. The few joints I smuggled from California impressed locals, though my lovely Humboldt-grown cannabis appeared to be a bit too strong for some of the locals I shared it with. While some of the homegrown Uruguayan bud I tried was excellent, they have a long way to go to match California’s cannabis prowess. There were no dab rigs to be found, and this was a more innocent and far less intense event than the cannabis expos I’ve recently attended in the States. Again, the vibe of consumer and community trumped that of industry and profit.

Continue reading this feature article in Freedom Leaf Magazine digital edition here

Amanda Reiman is Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.