In Uruguay’s latest experiment with cannabis, the government will be selling weed — but not to just anyone. If you’re a ganja tourist headed toward the coastal South American country, don’t get too excited.
While citizens, with or without a doctor’s recommendation, will be able to walk into a pharmacy and buy cannabis for the government-set price of $1.70/gram, foreigners won’t have access. Despite having been the first country to fully legalize weed, Uruguay isn’t trying to emulate Amsterdam’s once-touristy coffee shop model.
Though legal, Uruguay’s cannabis program is still somewhat restrictive. It excludes the kind of fun, candy edibles you might find in Colorado or California, and requires the government to regulate various aspects of the country’s cannabis plants, from their genetic composition to their THC percentages.
Among all other jurisdictions where weed is legal, Uruguay is the only one to comprehensively regulate the cannabis plant’s lifecycle, starting from its genetics, through the grow cycle, and later in the marketplace. Their approach is to reconcile prohibition with the Green Rush. Hence, the government bans commercial cannabis branding and advertising. Even the private companies that supply the government pharmacies with four tons of cannabis per year are disallowed from putting labels on their packaging.
Julio Calzada, one of the public health officers who helped write Uruguay’s cannabis regulations, says he fears that commercial weed could lead to something like the tobacco industry, with competitive companies pushing their products on the public.
“To us, marijuana is a vegetable substance with a capacity to generate addiction, so what we’re trying to do is control the production, distribution, and consumption of that substance as effectively as possible,” says Calzada.
So far, 4500 citizens have signed up for the government’s cannabis database system, which enables anyone over 18 to buy up to 40 grams of weed per month at one of the country’s nearly 40 pharmacies. The system has registered customers identify themselves via a finger scan, rather than ID cards. While the government approved legalization in 2013, it’s taken a while to fully implement; finally by the end of the month, all of Uruguay’s cannabis pharmacies should be stocked. (The country has already had at least 60 dispensaries that provide customers with a monthly supply, but that’s different from the government’s pharmacy-based system of commercial sales.)
And while some cannabis consumers are reticent to register their fingerprints, the database will only be available privately with a judge’s order in the case of criminal investigations.
Capped at five and ten percent THC, the bud itself won’t be too strong, either. It will be grown at a facility on state-leased land right next to Uruguay’s highest-security prison.
Still, there’s much more interest in growing weed at home than buying it at a store. Almost 7,000 people have registered to grow their own pants (up to six allowed) for personal use, while other people are registered with dispensaries that give them a monthly supply of weed much stronger than what the government-regulated pharmacies will sell.
That said, Uruguay’s aim is to shift the focus of cannabis from a black market drug to an expanding industry.