Beach view in Uruguay, the first country to legalize recreational cannabis.

Marc Veraart

Delays in Uruguay’s Legalization Regime Allowing Trafficking to Remain Lucrative

Delays in the rollout of Uruguay’s cannabis legalization program has enabled the illegal cannabis trade to remain lucrative, with seven out of every 10 cannabis consumers purchasing products on the informal market, according to a report by Insight Crime. Legal sales were supposed to begin last July but were pushed back due, in part, to security concerns by some small business owners.

Under the regime, announced by then-President José Mujica in 2012, home-growing is allowed which is keeping some consumers away from the illegal trade. The law was designed to undercut drug trafficking profits and keep regular users from so-called “street selling points” where products are often tainted with harmful substances. It was set to be implemented in December 2013 but pharmacy owners who would sell the drug expressed concern that doing so would make them targets for the cartels.

“The law is okay; but have we done all this just to combat drug trafficking?” Alejandro Antalif, vice president of the Uruguayan Center for Pharmacies asked in the report. “If that’s the aim, I think that home growing and the membership clubs are useful, but [selling in pharmacies] is exposing a sector in which 90 percent of the workers are women.”

Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez, an oncologist, has expressed support for the law — which sets the cannabis price at $1.17 per gram — and insists he is not the reason for the delays.

Juan Baz, a member of the Foundation for the Study of Cannabis in Uruguay, said that despite the setbacks, the law is already working, explaining that illegal cannabis sales in the nation were already down in 2015.

“When the consumer shifts toward home cultivation and pharmacy sales, [trafficking] ceases to be a business,” he said.

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