WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
10 May 2016 | Commentary | News

Uruguay’s Cannabis Law Makes Big Strides, But Faces Serious Challenges

(Note: this piece was published for a general audience ahead of The 2016 Cannabis Science & Policy Summit. Read the full piece here)

Nearly two and half years after becoming law, Uruguay’s pioneering plan to regulate every level of the national market for cannabis is finally on the verge of taking shape. While implementation has proceeded at a deliberate pace—in part due to the transition to a new government in early 2015—recent advances provide a glimpse of what full implementation will look like.

Recent weeks brought two significant developments. First, the two companies that won contracts to grow cannabis for commercial purposes have planted their first crop, meaning that Uruguayan adults should be able to purchase cannabis for non-medical use at sales points in pharmacies in late 2016. Second, Uruguayan authorities have announced an agreement with every major pharmacy association in the country that outlines the security, storage and distribution requirements for interested pharmacies. This agreement represents a crucial step forward, as it tasks pharmacies themselves with responsibilities that have been left pending since the passage of the law, such as the distribution of the product from cultivation sites to points of sale.

These developments add to the progress already being made with respect to the other two forms of legal access to cannabis: home growing and clubs. The Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) began issuing cultivation licenses to home growers in August 2014 and started registering cannabis clubs in November of that year. Today, more than 4,400 Uruguayan households are legally growing up to six cannabis plants in their homes, and members of 17 registered cannabis clubs around the country can access cannabis cultivated by their cooperatives.

Other elements of the law are moving forward as well. To prevent spillage into the black market, a new software system has been developed for use in participating pharmacies, in which registered users will be able to purchase cannabis by providing fingerprint scans. The Ministry of Health is currently mapping out a plan to implement a medical cannabis system, and industrial hemp production is also underway.

Recognizing these advances is important. Since the law’s passage, Uruguay has been a target of foreign critics decrying slow progress in implementation. Largely unfamiliar with the painstaking preparation being done on the ground, they have often mistaken Uruguay’s careful approach for inaction or political paralysis, calling the law “half-baked” or predicting that it was going “up in smoke.” In fact, the Uruguayan government is being cautious precisely because they are well aware that that their law itself is bold—they are creating the world’s first national-level legal cannabis market, and they know that each step—and especially each misstep—will be scrutinized.

This is not to say that Uruguay’s deliberate pace has meant flawless implementation. Indeed, with no precedent for what they are is attempting, Uruguay’s authorities are aware that missteps are inevitable. The question is not whether mistakes will be made and weaknesses revealed, but whether Uruguay can recognize and resolve the problems that do arise.

There are important concerns, for example, about whether the IRCCA has an adequate budget and staff to fulfill its responsibilities, and whether Uruguay’s police are familiar enough with the new law and its implications for their enforcement practices…(READ MORE)