Looking Abroad for Regulatory Guidance: Legalized Cannabis in Uruguay

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Policy makers across the country are being faced with the need to develop systems for regulating cannabis as there are few places that can serve as regulatory models.  When looking abroad to examine these systems of legalization, Amsterdam is well-known for its coffee shops and cannabis tourism.  But, as the first nation to officially legalize cannabis, Uruguay provides an example of a pragmatic national cannabis regulation program designed to address public health.

Cannabis Legalized Nationwide

Uruguay’s drug policy has long recognized drug abuse as a public health concern and this perspective has clear influences on the country’s current cannabis policy.  Personal use has been decriminalized for years, but cannabis moved beyond decriminalization in December 2013, when President Mujica signed Law 19.172, under which the government permits and regulates the cultivation, harvest, production, and distribution of cannabis and its derivatives.  Uruguay declared that is in the public interest to set policies oriented towards minimizing the risks and reducing the harm of cannabis use by promoting education and prevention of the consequences and damaging effects associated with its consumption.  Unlike Washington and Colorado, where citizen initiatives legalized cannabis by popular vote, Uruguay’s legislation was enacted despite polls showing the majority of Uruguayans did not support legalization.  This disapproval resulted in delays in the implementation of the law and it is also likely that this opposition pushed the government to establish robust cannabis regulations to address public concerns.

The legislation signed by President Mujica created the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), an agency with three broad missions: (1) to regulate the production, processing, distribution, and sale of cannabis; (2) to reduce risks and harms associated with problematic cannabis use; and (3) to monitor compliance with cannabis laws and regulations.  The regulations fleshing out the specifics of the system to be administered by IRCCA were promulgated in May 2014.

Regulation of Cannabis Use

To obtain cannabis, an individual must register with the IRCCA as user.  During registration, users must opt into one of the three approved sources of cannabis: household cultivation, a membership club, or pharmacy.  Users are then limited to obtaining cannabis only through that source.  Regardless of source, each user is limited to receiving 480 grams of cannabis per year.  This limitation is significantly more restrictive than the laws in Washington or Colorado, which allows recreational possession of up to an ounce and has no tracking system in place to limit yearly consumption.

Another provision that undermines public health goals and distinguishes the cannabis policy of Uruguay from Amsterdam is that only adults who can provide proof of Uruguayan citizenship or permanent resident status are eligible for the registry.

Consumption of cannabis is prohibited in enclosed public spaces, workplaces, all modes of collective transportation, and health facilities. Individuals who appear to be intoxicated may be denied entry to public events.

Driving under the influence of cannabis is a crime resulting in the loss of driving privileges and subjecting violators to other penalties.  The IRCCA is tasked with establishing the tests and methods for detecting the presence of THC in the body.  However, a specific threshold that would result in a presumption of impairment has not yet been set by the IRCCA.

The regulation of cannabis also applies to the workplace.  Employees are prohibited from using or being under the influence of cannabis during working hours.  IRCCA is responsible for developing workplace drug testing methods and procedures.  Employers are authorized to suspend or terminate employees who are found to be intoxicated at work.

Regulation of Cannabis Production

Cannabis production is divided into three categories: household cultivation, membership clubs, and production for pharmacies.

Individuals can register to be licensed for household cultivation of up to six plants per home, with an annual yield not to exceed 480 grams.  However, a single household can grow only six plants, regardless of the number of users in the house.

Groups of fifteen to forty-five people can establish membership cannabis clubs for the sole purpose of growing, processing, and distributing cannabis to their members.  These licensed clubs are allowed to grow, process, and distribute up to 480 grams a year per member.

A third license is available for production of cannabis that will be distributed by pharmacies.  This license includes an approved production volume and is subject to enhanced terms and conditions, including safety procedures, quality control standards, and packaging requirements.  A separate distribution license is required for pharmacies, which can sell only cannabis grown under a pharmacy production license.  The government announced that the price for cannabis sold through pharmacies will be approximately $1 per gram.  Customers will be limited to purchasing ten grams at a time, and to forty grams per month.

Though the pharmacy framework is in place, implementation of these regulated sales has been delayed.  Pharmacy production licenses were recently granted to two companies, Symbiosys and Iccorp, that will allow them to each produce two tons of marijuana per year.  Sales of this product in pharmacies should begin by next summer.

While the pharmacy sales process has been slow, many household cultivation and membership club licenses have already been granted.  The Uruguay’s National Drug Board recently reported that there are already 3,100 registered home growers, two membership clubs have been approved, and fifteen more clubs are in the process of registration.

Uruguay will be a country to watch as the third prong of their production system is implemented in the coming year and pharmacy distribution begins.  As more states move towards legalization and regulation of cannabis, Uruguay’s experiment with legalization will serve as a model for policy makers in the United States.  Further, as a national program, their leadership can help provide insight to leaders around the world who may be contemplating similar legislation.

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