Cursing, Laura Andrade left a pharmacy in Uruguay recently because she could not get her hands on legal pot. After taking a bus specifically because pharmacies in her area are not selling the drug, the store simply told her to return the next day. “I work,” she complained. “I cannot come here every day. Today, I will have to buy from an illegal dealer. I have no choice. This system is crap. It is useless!”
Under a law passed back in 2013 already, Uruguay began selling legal marijuana last year. The nation is the first in the world to legalize the entire cannabis chain, from seed to sale. However, the country is still trying to figure out how to supply demand in its attempt to undercut drug traffickers profiting off the black market.
In speaking with The Associated Press, Diego Olivera, head of Uruguay’s National Drugs Council, said, “The demand is greater than our productive capacity. We have to address that challenge.” This is the complete opposite of what some states in the United States are facing. Many with a legalized market, such as California and Oregon, are struggling with an oversupply. Sellers are even slashing prices.
As Andrade found out the hard way, just finding legal cannabis in Uruguay can be a challenge. Under the law, registered consumers can purchase as much as 40 grams, or 1.4 ounces, of weed every month at participating dispensaries, but only 14 out of the 1,200 pharmacies in the country are willing to sell pot. Most are hesitant to stock it, fearing robberies and low profit margins.
Uruguay also allows licensed individuals to grow weed, and it permits the formation of consumer and cultivation clubs, similar to co-operatives. Olivera guesses that, between both the legal and the black markets, consumers are buying up to 25 metric tons of cannabis each year. Some academic studies put this number higher, estimating it could be as much as 30 metric tons.
That is approximately three times the amount that the legal system is able to provide, even at full capacity, and officials claim that it has actually been producing much less. Currently, only two companies have licenses to supply only four tons to pharmacies, but officials say that they are only now starting to meet that target. To combat this problem, officials are toying with the idea of granting more licenses.
Olivera explained, “There was no experience with farming on a large scale and it took a while to finally nail the technology, the workforce and the drying process.” Harvesting crops was a challenging process from the beginning, claims Eduardo Blasina, an agronomy engineer holding a minority stake in those companies supplying pharmacies.
“It is a complex crop,” Blasina said, “and the investors behind these companies did not come from a culture of cannabis. You would tell them: You need to buy 50 fans, something that is very necessary in some instances, and they would look at you as if you were an alien.” The country’s 8,750 registered individual growers may harvest only 480 grams, or just over a pound, each annually.
If everybody grew that much, it would add up to about four tons a year. There are also 2,529 members in 90 users clubs. If they cultivated their maximum amount, it would total around another ton every year. Currently, there are approximately 147,000 Uruguayans aged 18-years to 65-years consuming cannabis, with roughly a third of them using it on a weekly basis.
So far, however, only about 35,000 have added their names to the legal marijuana system. Even with registered users sharing their weed, Uruguay’s Cannabis Control Institute claims that only about half of all users in the country have access to the regulated market. Out of the 19 provinces in the country, most of them still do not even have online weed dispensary.
This despite the number of people registering to buy at these pharmacies jumping from 4,959 in July 2017, when legal sales started, to about 24,117 today. Lino Celle, a pharmacy employee, says that cannabis stock arrives once a week at his company. “They are supposed to provide us with about four kilograms,” he said, “but they only leave us three.”
“The system is ridiculous. I live far away, work and study. It is too complicated to buy like this,” a local chef opined. Since he does not want the stigma of smoking marijuana, he asked to remain anonymous. “I am here to buy it, but they will not sell it to me because I come some hours early,” he said of a pharmacy that sells weed on an appointment basis. “If the law says this is legal, what is the problem?”
Many are moaning about the quality too. “This is the last time we buy,” said Jose Luis Bertullo, who brought his partner, Jazmin Texeira, along to the pharmacy. “This marijuana does not really hit you as much,” he explained, adding that the two of them plan to register so that they can grow their own. “It will be much better to have our own little plant.”
The country’s government-regulated pot market intended to fight increasing crime and homicide rates associated with illegal drug trafficking. However, drug violence has been steadily rising since the law went into effect. Eduardo Bonomi, Interior Minister, claims that fights among criminal gangs, mostly related to drugs, account for 59 percent of homicides this year alone, almost double what it was in 2012.
Last year, homicide rates in the country were 8.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is the second highest it has ever been in nearly three decades, though still notably better than homicide rates for neighboring Brazil. On Telemundo television, Former President and legalization opponent, Julio Maria Sanguinetti, said, “There have never been as many drug traffickers and drug violence as there is today.”
For Olivera and other officials, they just need more time to get the system working. “It is going to be a year in July since the sale in pharmacies began,” Olivera stated. “We never thought about eliminating the black market in a short time; it was always going to be a gradual thing. This does not happen overnight.” Until they sort out the mess, though, consumers will continue using the black market.