Five years after legalizing marijuana, Uruguay is facing cannabis supply problems. The South American country was the first nation to legalize marijuana in 2013. But legal sales of cannabis began just last year. The law allows registered consumers to purchase up to 40 grams (nearly 1.5 ounces) of cannabis at participating pharmacies each month. But so far, only 14 of approximately 1,200 pharmacies in the country have registered to sell cannabis.
Wine sommelier Laura Andrade recently had to take a bus to reach one of the pharmacies that sells cannabis. But when she got there, the shop was out of stock and an employee asked her to return the following day. Andrade told the Associated Press that she would resort to the black market instead.
Uruguay’s legalization statute also allows licensed individuals to cultivate cannabis. Growers and users can establish clubs to share marijuana, as well. But the government is in charge of the production of cannabis for sale at pharmacies. So far, they’ve only licensed two cultivators to provide marijuana to the legal market. Diego Olivera, head of the Uruguay National Drugs Council, told reporters he is aware of the supply problem.
“The demand is greater than our productive capacity,” he said. “We have to address that challenge.”
Together, the two cultivators are licensed to produce 4 metric tons of pot annually for sale at pharmacies. But they only recently began to grow at that capacity. Olivera said the growing pains of a new industry are responsible for the slow start.
“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,” he explained.
Collectively, the licensed cultivators, individual growers, and clubs could produce about nine tons of weed per year. But Olivera acknowledges that up to 25 tons of cannabis are consumed in the country each year. He also noted that government officials are considering adding more licensed growers.
Eduardo Blasina is an agronomy engineer and minority investor in the cultivation companies. He also cited inexperience as an obstacle to producing cannabis at full capacity.
“It’s a complex crop, and the investors behind these companies didn’t come from a culture of cannabis,” he said. “You’d tell them: You need to buy 50 fans, something that’s very necessary in some instances, and they’d look at you as if you were an alien.”
Uruguay’s legalization drive was in part an effort to reduce the violence of black market drug gangs. But so far, the killings have increased since pot became legal. Gang killings, most involving drugs, were responsible for 59 percent of the homicides during the first three months of this year, according to Interior Minister Eduardo Bonomi.
Former President Julio Maria Sanguinetti, who opposed cannabis legalization, told Telemundo television that the plan is not working.
“There have never been as many drug traffickers and drug violence as today,” he said.
Olivera of the National Drug Council suggested patience.
“It’s going to be a year in July since the sale in the pharmacies began,” Olivera said. “We never thought about eliminating the black market in a short time; it was always a gradual thing. … This doesn’t happen overnight,” he said.