By Alejandro Prieto
Montevideo, Jul 18 (EFE).- Five years after Uruguayan pharmacies began selling cannabis for recreational use, the pioneering law that ushered in that new business has gained greater public support and the worst fears about “gangs of zombies” or spiraling addiction rates have been allayed.
Long lines formed when marijuana sales at pharmacies began on July 19, 2017, three-and-a-half years after Uruguay became the first country in the modern era to legalize cannabis.
But now an atmosphere of total normalcy is apparent at the Antartida pharmacy in Montevideo, one of the 16 outlets that were initially authorized to sell cannabis.
In fact, the only difference visible between marijuana sales and transactions involving standard medications is that buyers must provide a fingerprint impression.
In remarks to Efe, Antartida’s owner, Sergio Redin, said cannabis has been sold for years “without any problems” and that not even his most conservative customers have stopped shopping there.
“When we applied (for authorization to sell cannabis), we had some fears,” he said. “It was something totally new. A lot of pharmacies were against it. Fears about security, that the society, the customers, would reject it. None of that happened,” he said.
Milton Romani, the ex-secretary general of the National Drug Board, the government agency tasked with implementing Uruguay’s drug policies, said several myths hovered over the law regulating cannabis sales, which then-President Jose Mujica signed in December 2013 as an anti-drug trafficking measure.
“There were no gangs of zombies that attacked pharmacies, as some predicted,” he said, adding that fears that Brazilians and Argentines would travel in droves to Uruguay to buy cannabis and send consumption rates soaring also were unfounded.
“The scientific research has shown that cannabis legalization and regulation have not increased consumption. Chile hasn’t regulated or legalized (marijuana), and it has more consumption than Uruguay. In Uruguay, it grew a little at first but now has stabilized,” Romani said.
Uruguayan Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA) Executive Director Juan Ignacio Tastas recalled that the pioneering move to legalize recreational cannabis allowed people to grow up to six plants at home and form growers’ clubs that could cultivate up to 99 plants annually.
Then in 2017 authorized pharmacies were permitted to make retail sales to fingerprint-registered consumers (now totaling 49,630), who are allowed a weekly quota of up 10 grams per week across all points of sale.
Tastas noted that supply problems initially discouraged potential customers.
Redin, for his part, agrees that demand initially exceeded supply in a tightly regulated market but says the situation has since been “totally reversed” and that now plenty of cannabis is available for sale.
But pharmacies also came under pressure from banks after cannabis money began entering their accounts, Tastas said, pointing out that United States banks regard those proceeds as illegal and their Uruguayan counterparts do not want to run afoul of finance laws related to controlled substances.
Redin, nevertheless, sees further promise for the industry and says consumers will be drawn to a new strain of cannabis being prepared by the IRCCA that will double the per-package level of THC – the psychoactive substance present in marijuana – to 12 percent or 13 percent.
Testas says of that development that the IRCCA is not looking to create a product with more psychoactivity but instead to retain customers who otherwise would seek out stronger cannabis via unsafe avenues.
“What we’re trying to do is have existing consumers move from illegality to other supply sources,” he added.
Separately, he said efforts are being made to convince more pharmacies to sell cannabis with a view to at least doubling the current total of 28 authorized outlets.
And despite the snags along the way, one undeniable area of progress over the past five years has been public acceptance for the pioneering law, with public approval of recreational cannabis sales having climbed from 24 percent in 2012 to 48 percent at present. EFE