Beginning on July 19, Uruguay's citizens will be able to legally purchase marijuana from pharmacies, a milestone in the process of establishing a legal market for the drug and a valuable experiment for the region, despite setbacks and potential shortcomings.
The start date for legal marijuana sales was announced last week by the government agency responsible for coordinating the process, the Cannabis Regulation and Control Institute (Instituto de Regulación y Control del Cannabis). Sales will be conducted under government supervision in 16 pharmacies that have already joined the ongoing registration process.
Sales are prohibited for non-citizens. But nearly 5,000 Uruguayans have registered to be able to buy the drug at a state-regulated price of about 37 Uruguayan pesos (approximately $1.30) per gram. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated in 2015 that the average price of black market marijuana in Uruguay was about $1.7 dollars per gram.
The product can be purchased in packets of 5 grams each. Individuals are limited to purchasing no more than 40 grams per month.
The government has authorized private companies to grow two varities of the plant for sale in the pharmacies. The first variety, dubbed ALFA I, contains a concentration of around 2 percent of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and 7 percent of Cannabidiol (CBD), two of cannabis' main psychoactive chemicals. The second variety, BETA I, contains a concentration of 2 percent of THC and 6 percent of CBD.
Although pharmacy sales had been delayed, the government had previously legalized the regulated cultivation of cannabis by individuals as well as private clubs from which members can buy limited amounts of the drug.
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Uruguay's implementation of a legal, regulated marijuana market has been criticized on various grounds, including whether or not it will be able to undercut the criminal marijuana trade. This is one of the main state-declared goals of the policy, along with attempting to limit damages to consumers' health.
Some critics have argued that the state-set price of the legal marijuana is not low enough to undercut the black market, where cheaper product can be found. Others have pointed to the very low concentration of THC in the legal drug as another reason why some users may turn to the black market. Though the price may be higher -- a gram of high-potency illegal marijuana can cost as much as $20 -- some users may be willing to pay this premium in exchange for access to a more powerful drug.
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Still, whether or not these objectives are achieved, the process remains a valuable experiment in an alternative approach to controlling the the most consumed illicit drug in Latin America and in the world. The process has already taken over three years of debate, study and refining, and the lessons it has yielded will certainly help inform future conversations about marijuana legalization in countries as Paraguay and Colombia, the region's main marijuana growers, or Argentina and Brazil, which host substantial marijuana consumption markets and at times suffer from related violence.