The decriminalisation of marijuana in Uruguay has helped drive iilegal drug-traffickers out of the market, but an insufficient state supply and the weak potency of weed from pharmacies means a majority of consumers still turn to the black market to buy.
In 2013 Uruguay made history by becoming the first country in the world to legalise and regulate the production and consumption of cannabis, a measure that began to be implemented just over five years ago.
Promoted by former president and guerrilla fighter José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, the measure was presented as an alternative to the failed "war on drugs." It has brought in more than US$20 million for Uruguay’s economy, money that previously would have ended up in the hands of drug-traffickers.
Legalisation has also allowed the birth of an incipient marijuana export industry that is growing year by year. According to data from the Uruguay XXI news portal, in 2020 exports doubled from the previous year to US$7.3 million. In 2021, revenues were US$8.1 million and in the first half of 2022, US$4.4 million. At the moment, exports are focused on flowers for medicinal use and are mainly destined for the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Israel, Argentina and Brazil.
But despite its status as a pioneer in the international marijuana industry, Uruguay still exports far less than its other competitors in Latin America such as Chile, which in 2020 obtained US$59 million, Peru (US$40 million) and Colombia (US$37 million), according to a report by the Quito Chamber of Commerce.
Legislation introduced three mechanisms for the acquisition of marijuana: self-cultivation, legal cannabis clubs and purchase at pharmacies, all forms under state regulation and restricted to those residing in the country, although Congress is considering opening up the market to visiting tourists.
"The regulation of cannabis has been more effective than repression in terms of hitting drug-trafficking," explains Mercedes Ponce de León, director of the Cannabis Business Hub and ExpoCannabis Uruguay.
The government now plans to sell cannabis with more "punch" in pharmacies by the end of the year to attract more recreational users into the formal market.
"There are some users who are demanding a higher percentage of THC or more variety, and that conspires against the effectiveness of the system because it means some users who could buy in pharmacies to go to other options in the regulated market or to the black market," says Daniel Radío, secretary general of the National Drug Board.
Only 27 percent of people who purchase the drug do so legally, according to a study published by the IRCCA (Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis), which compiles annual data for 2021. This figure corresponds to people registered via one of the three regulated market options.
The percentage rises to 39 percent if one takes into account that some buyers share the product with friends and acquaintances.
Few options at pharmacies
Joaquín – a pseudonym for the name of a cannabis user who buys illegally – explains that "it is often very difficult to get marijuana without making an appointment to pick it up at the pharmacy."
"The black market is simply having a contact, talking to him, and on the same day, or the next day, coordinating and buying," he added.
There are few authorised pharmacies in relation to the total population and there are still difficulties for them in accessing the financial system due to international legislation.
The data problem also affects consumers. Access to the three legal purchasing channels requires registration and some prefer not to give their identity, even though the information is used only for consumer research, according to the government.
In the case of the clubs, they can only have limited numbers (between 15 and 45), and at many, there is even a waiting list to sign up.
‘Pulla,’ the nickname given to the treasurer and technical manager at one cannabis club in Montevideo, explains that the waiting list "is an indicator that the demand is not satisfied – there are many more people wanting to access the legal market who still can't."
The regulation establishes that each member's stockpile cannot exceed 40 grams per month and, in many cases, there is also a minimum level that must be reached.
As consumption has become more normalised, the perception of the illegal market has also changed. Experts indicate that the biggest suppliers to the market are in fact small-scale local growers.
Agus, the pseudonym of a 28-year-old user, explains that she originally signed up to buy cannabis at pharmacies but she now buys it on the black market while growing her own plants, without being registered.
"I don't see it as a black market either. I understand that it's close, it has good prices for what it sells for, and it doesn't seem like you're using it for drug-trafficking," she says. There is "a friend or an acquaintance who passes you a contact of someone who has flowers and they sell them."
According to Marcos Baudean, a professor at the ORT University in Uruguay and a researcher for the Monitor Cannabis project, "there are many more home-growers who do not appear on the registers," so it is impossible to make a concrete estimate of how much of the black market is involved in.
Despite this, the professor assures that unregistered growers "have already surpassed" the number of trafficking networks in the sale of cannabis. Nevertheless, drug-traffickers continue to be present in Uruguay, mainly by selling the well-known "paraguayo" offering, a cheaper pressed marijuana.