In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to legalize recreational cannabis. Then, in 2017, it opened sales for cannabis, offering a unique model where consumers could buy from pharmacies, join Cannabis Clubs, or grow their own. As Uruguay commemorates six years of legal cannabis sales, the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) recently shared data on the program’s progress.
Uruguay, the first country in the world to legalize cannabis for adults in 2013, began the sales of cannabis four years later, in 2017. On the occasion of the sixth anniversary of the start of adult cannabis sales in Uruguay, the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), the regulatory body for cannabis in Uruguay, published data last week on cannabis sales in pharmacies.
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Uruguay – Not Like Canada or US
Unlike Canada or the 23 American states that have legalized cannabis, Uruguay opted for a model where consumers can either purchase cannabis from pharmacies, participate in a Cannabis Club, or grow it at home. Sales at pharmacies are subsidized to ensure that cannabis does not cost more than $1.30 per gram and are only allowed after registration in a database. The Cannabis Clubs, on the other hand, consist of 15 to 45 members who produce their own cannabis.
Between July 19, 2017, and July 19, 2023, approximately 75,000 residents have registered in some way for the government’s cannabis program, with 61,509 registered to purchase legal cannabis, mostly through pharmacies, and 10,486 through the roughly 300 Cannabis Clubs. During this period, Uruguayan pharmacies sold 10,693,210 grams of cannabis, according to the IRCCA. Additionally, 14,592 individuals are registered as home cannabis cultivators.
Regarding production, only three companies operating in Uruguay currently have the authorization to cultivate and distribute cannabis through the 37 pharmacies allowed to sell cannabis to registered citizens.
A Historic and Limited Legalization
The announcement of legalization faced some objections, such as from Russia and the United Nations, who argued that it was a blatant violation of the International Convention on Narcotic Drugs. However, Uruguay, guided by President Jose “Pepe” Mujica at the time, pushed forward with its project.
The Uruguayan model, of course, has some drawbacks, which have led to a relatively low number of official consumers in the market. One reason is that many residents do not wish to be registered in government databases as cannabis consumers or cultivators and thus continue to grow or buy cannabis illegally.
Drawbacks of Model for Uruguay
Another drawback of the Uruguayan model of pharmacy cannabis sales is the limited selection of varieties in the legal market, which currently includes only three varieties (with one recently added), and one more will be added by the end of 2023:
- “Alpha”: sativa with 9% THC and 3% CBD
- “Beta”: indica with 9% THC and 3% CBD
- “Gamma”: hybrid with 15% THC and up to 1% CBD
- “Delta” (upcoming): with a high percentage of CBD and a low percentage of THC
Experts Estimate Cannabis Consumption in Uruguay
Experts now estimate that only half of the cannabis consumption in Uruguay occurs in the legal market, with the main suppliers being small self-producers who cultivate without being registered, serving a limited and local circle of consumers.
Nevertheless, according to a report published in 2020, the legalization did not lead to an increase in cannabis consumption among Uruguayan adolescents.
The study, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, concluded that there was “no evidence of an impact on cannabis consumption or perception of consumption risk” among the youth in Uruguay.
“Our results support the thesis that the regulatory approach of the Uruguayan State regarding cannabis supply can minimize the impact of legalization on cannabis consumption among adolescents,” the study states. “At the same time, our study period represents a transitional period: pharmacy access, by far the most popular means of access, was not available before the summer of 2017. Additional studies will be important to assess the longer-term impacts of the fully implemented legalization regime on substance consumption outcomes.”
The study, presented as the “first empirical evidence of the impact [of the law] on cannabis consumption and related risks among adolescents,” also revealed that there had been “no increase in students’ perception of cannabis availability” following legalization in Uruguay.
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