An increase in marijuana seizures in Uruguay raises questions about whether criminal groups are taking advantage of delays to the implementation of the country’s landmark 2013 legalization law to establish a firm market share.
According to Uruguay's El Pais, Uruguayan authorities seized 4,305 kilograms of marijuana in 2016, an increase from the 2,521 kilograms seized in 2015, and the 1,457 kilograms of marijuana seized in 2014.
In addition to the overall increase in seizures, authorities have noticed a shift in the routes used to traffic marijuana into Uruguay. On January 14, Uruguayan police seized 320 kilograms in Rocha, along the Brazilian border, which authorities told El Pais was one of their largest seizures ever in that state. There have also been notably large seizures of drugs compared to previous years coming from Argentina and Paraguay, according to the report.
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Uruguay was the first country to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, but until the government implements the legal sale of the drug in the country, the illegal marijuana economy is likely to thrive and threatens to undermine the legal sale of the drug.
Government-regulated commercialization was supposed to happen last year. In September, Uruguay’s National Drug Board (Junta Nacional de Drogas – JND) announced that it was establishing a registry of citizens so that they could buy marijuana in pharmacies. But there have been persistent delays.
While the government has registered some pharmacies to allow the sale of the drug, the legal sale of marijuana has not been completely put in place. The official, full-scale legal commercialization of marijuana is now expected to take place sometime this year.
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In the meantime, the rise in marijuana seizures illustrates that the black market is filling the void, and, as the seizure data suggests, the market may even be rising for the illegal marijuana. Seizures are not a perfect measure by any standard, but they are an important indicator and could represent a trend and a challenge to the legal market going forward.
The 2013 law is premised on the notion that once marijuana is available commercially, the Uruguayans will be willing to pay a premium for the local brands, as opposed to consuming the black market marijuana coming from Paraguay. Indeed, Geoffrey Ramsey, research and communications associate with the Washington Office on Latin America told InSight Crime that, "Once Uruguayans get used to seeing marijuana sold commercially, the market for an inferior product will begin to vanish.”
(See Ramsey's recent update on where the legalization process stands and challenges going forward here.)
Still, the country has yet to cross that hurdle, and the increase in seizures could be a harbinger of the challenge to come as the government tries to establish its baseline price.