LATIN AMERICA

Nations come knocking on Uruguay’s door to buy cannabis

Canada, Chile and Israel express interest in purchasing marijuana for medicinal purposes

A man celebrates the passage of the marijuana legalization law last month.
A man celebrates the passage of the marijuana legalization law last month.A. STAPFF / REUTERS

Pharmacies in Canada, Chile and Israel have been lining up to inquire about the possibilities of purchasing marijuana from the government of Uruguay, which just two weeks ago became the first country in the world to legalize the sale and harvest of cannabis for its citizens.

Uruguay’s experiment to begin regulating marijuana sales is in response to the failed policies and laws aimed at cracking down on the drug trade, President José Mujica has insisted.

According to the Montevideo daily El Observador, government officials and laboratories in Canada, as well as pharmaceutical companies in Chile and Israel, have contacted the Mujica administration to begin holding talks on the purchase of marijuana supplies to be used in those countries for medicinal purposes.

The controversial law, which was passed last month despite fierce opposition, does not address export sales of cannabis but nor does it prohibit them.

According to the new regulations, consumers can possess up to six plants – which would yield a maximum 480 grams of marijuana – for their personal use. Marijuana clubs with 15 to 45 members can possess up to 99 plants.

In Canada, some 26,000 patients are authorized to smoke marijuana for medicinal purposes. The drug is usually prescribed to cancer, MS, AIDS and epilepsy sufferers, as well as others who suffer from pain. They pay the equivalent of 3.66 euros per gram.

Even though it wasn’t the law’s goal, Uruguay could become an important bio-tech center ”

The liberal Uruguay government has said that it will sell marijuana at the current street price of about 73 cents a gram. Sales at local pharmacies are not expected to begin until March, when the necessary regulations are put into place.

Because growing marijuana is illegal in Canada, the Ottawa government imports its supplies from the Netherlands. But the Dutch have been incapable of keeping up with external demand given that there are not enough producers, and they have also expressed interest in using Uruguay as a base.

“It is true that they have contacted us to set up farms, which would be a big challenge for us,” said Diego Cánepa, Mujica’s chief of staff, in an interview with El Observador. “It is very important to know what this all means. Even though it wasn’t the goal of the law, Uruguay could become an important bio-tech center. This is an area that still needs to be developed and could have a huge impact.

“A short time ago, medical marijuana was only used as an analgesic, but now there is research into using its derivatives for other medicines,” he explained.

British pharmaceutical giant GV is using cannabis to manufacture the drug Sativex for MS patients and infants who suffer from epilepsy.

But Inocencio Bertoni, the director of agriculture services at the Ministry of Ranching, said that for the moment the government is only concentrating its efforts on regulating the sale internally.

Nevertheless, some activists and Uruguayan businessmen want to manufacture prescription drugs, such as Sativex, in their country. Just days after the legalization bill was signed into law by Mujica after being passed by Congress, a group of activists organized the so-called National Federation of Cannabis Growers of Uruguay (FNCU) for people who are interested in growing marijuana for personal and commercial purposes. This federation also wants to help map out national policies regarding the growing, harvesting and distribution of cannabis. Members said they will push farms to hire people who represent vulnerable minority groups, such as single mothers, transsexuals and garbage scavengers, who look for waste for recycling.

Smoking marijuana was legalized in Uruguay some decades back but it was only last month that the law began to allow Uruguayans to grow their own and purchase small amounts from the government at pharmacies, as from March.

Since legalization was passed, swarms of Argentinean tourists have been flocking across the River Plate to try to purchase marijuana at pharmacies, only to be told that the rules have not been put in place. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped them from lighting up once across the border.

According to the Buenos Aires daily La Nación, Argentinean tourists have been smoking marijuana freely at Uruguayan beaches, where they tend to travel at this time of year.

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