Uruguay was the pioneer country in the legalization of marijuana. Since July 2017, the Ministry of Public Health sells five gram sachets in pharmacies at the modest price of 200 pesos, about 5.25 euros. Drug addictions have not increased or there have been incidents, consumers are happy and public opinion is increasingly favorable. Everything went well. But there are paradoxical phenomena: the clandestine market persists, the industry derived from cannabis does not take off and speculative outbreaks appear.
"It's good, but good," says a boy who smokes a morning joint in the rambla of France, on the seafront of Montevideo. He has bought marijuana at a pharmacy and had to queue. Not because there are avalanches of consumers, but because only 17 of the almost one thousand Uruguayan pharmacies sell herb. Nothing to do with conscientious objections, but with pressure from banks. "We believed in our sovereignty and we do not measure that factor well," acknowledges Augusto Vitale, a psychologist, former president of the Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis and one of the main architects of legalization. "We do not have the American Terrorist Act or the UN regulations." The fact is that banks refuse to work with anyone related to marijuana, for fear of sanctions abroad, and that makes life bitter for pharmacists. And to the growers. And to the companies that They want to develop medicines, cosmetics, food or tissues from the plant.
Interestingly, now that marijuana is legal, it is necessary to create networks of companies that serve as a screen to hide the business, at least facing banks. "The imminent legalization in a country as big as Canada Maybe relax international prohibition and alleviate these problems, "says Vitale.
The difficulties do not come only from the financial sector. There are also political brakes. To the current Uruguayan president, Tabaré Vázquez, a doctor by profession, marijuana seems dangerous to him. The same as the Ministry of Public Health. With the previous president, the charismatic Pepe Mújica, cannabis was a priority issue. Now it is rather the opposite. The government prefers to keep the matter under a blanket of discretion and a spokesman for the presidency declined to comment to this newspaper. Regularized the sale for recreational use, the development of the industry is paralyzed for lack of legal framework. The medicinal uses, the real business for the private sector and the public coffers, do not advance.
"We start with an advantage and if we do not accelerate in the next two years, we will lose it in front of companies from Canada, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Portugal, Colombia and maybe Mexico, "says Eduardo Blasina, a respected businessman and expert on agrarian issues. Blasina was a shareholder of Symbiosis, one of the two companies that received a state license for the cultivation of marijuana. It is not anymore. His business group is still betting on cannabis products, although, according to him, "it seems easier to sell them in any German city than in Montevideo."
Even Chile, a prohibitionist country, is ahead of Uruguay in cannabis medicine. There weighs a bureaucratic question: the Uruguayan government demands, in order to approve a product, to go through all the experimental procedures that are required for any medication. That can be a decade. In other countries, the approval of oils and ointments derived from marijuana, such as cannabiol, effective against chronic pain and to complement cancer treatments, It requires less checks. The difference has its explanation: in Uruguay, the Ministry of Public Health is jointly responsible, together with the manufacturer, for any harmful effect of a medicine.
"There are many complaints and we seem to forget the essentials: that legalization works and that things move forward." Juan Baz was one of the activists who convinced Pepe Mujica – "especially his wife, Lucia," he says – to push the law. Now it is the voice of good sense. That marijuana from pharmacies is not very powerful? "Normal," Baz explains, "nobody wants an inexperienced kid to buy a bag at a pharmacy and end up with a faint-heartedness. The veteran potbellies we use grass with a THC (psychoactive component) superior to 12%, and that we obtain it with the autocultivo or in the clubs ". Baz has become an entrepreneur, has research agreements with the Pasteur Institute in Paris and has launched a project to develop a cannabis industry in the interior of the country.
The clubs admit up to 45 members and provide up to 480 grams per year to each one. But, like pharmacies, they can not sell to foreigners. And Uruguay is a tourist country. Foreign demand is one of the factors that keeps the clandestine market, which is no longer as black as before, in the sense that it is not related to violence and drug gangs, but it is at least gray. Just over a third of Uruguayan consumers are registered in pharmacies or clubs. The rest remain in the gray area.
"We speak of legal marijuana distributed illegally," says sociologist Sebastián Aguiar, who monitors the operation of legalization from the Faculty of Social Sciences. Aguiar stresses that the adulterated "pressed Paraguayan" that was previously consumed has disappeared from the market; notes that in 2017, for the first time, the majority of the population supported the free sale (44% in favor, 42% against, with 90% in favor of medicinal use) and calls into question the surveys that indicate an increase of consumption: perhaps what has increased with legalization, he suggests, is the sincerity of the respondents.