Legal marijuana, but Uruguayans still prefer the black market

Uruguay was a pioneer in legalizing recreational cannabis use, a move that helped oust many drug dealers from the domestic market.

But a dull and inadequate government supply has meant that most consumers still prefer black market variety.

In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the recreational use of marijuana – which came into force four years later – and even allowed its sale in dispensaries.

There are three legal ways for registered users to obtain marijuana: by purchasing it from dispensaries, by growing it for personal use, and by joining an official cannabis producing club.

The most sought-after legal recourse is membership in one of the 249 consumer clubs, which, with their 7,166 members, offer greater variety than pharmacies.

However, many clubs have long waiting lists as they are legally limited to between 15 and 45 members.

Pulla, the treasurer and technical manager of a cannabis club in Montevideo — who uses a nickname to avoid violating the ban on promoting cannabis use — explained that the waiting list is “an indicator that demand isn’t being met.”

“Many more people want access to the legal market who can’t yet,” he said.

There are just over 14,000 registered home growers, and another 49,600 people are registered to buy marijuana at one of the country’s 28 licensed dispensaries for about $10 per five grams — below the black market price.

According to a study by the local IRCCA institute, which regulates cannabis, only 27 percent of Uruguayan consumers buy their drugs through approved channels, a figure that reaches 39 percent when sharing with friends is factored in.

– “Main objectives achieved” –

Joaquin, a cannabis user who shops on the black market and goes by a pseudonym, explained that one problem with legal supply is the need to make an appointment at the pharmacy.

The black market is faster and easier. They “have a contact, talk to them and coordinate and buy on the day or the next day,” he said.

However, buying on the black market does not necessarily mean dealing with dangerous drug dealers.

Organized drug traffickers who sell “Paraguayans,” a cheaper marijuana imported from nearby Paraguay, make up just 30 percent of the illicit market, says Marcos Baudean, a professor at ORT University and a researcher on the Monitor Cannabis project.

“There are many more domestic growers who are simply not registered” but have already overtaken retail networks when it comes to selling cannabis.

In that regard, “the main goal has been achieved: people can use cannabis without being associated with criminal organizations,” said Daniel Radio, secretary general of the National Drug Board.

The perception of the illegal market has also changed.

Agus, 28 and using a pseudonym, said she originally registered to buy cannabis from pharmacies but now purchases it on the black market while growing her own plants, despite not being registered.

“I don’t see it as a black market,” she said. “It has good prices for what’s being sold and it doesn’t feel like it’s taking advantage of drug trafficking.”

There is “a friend or acquaintance who gives you a contact of someone who has flowers and sells them.”

Some people simply prefer to avoid registering, even though the information is only used to investigate consumption.

– “Potential” for cannabis tourism –

“Cannabis regulation has been more effective than repression in hitting the drug trade,” said Mercedes Ponce de Leon, director of the Cannabis Business Hub, a platform tasked with developing the drug’s ecosystem in the country.

However, Radio acknowledges that some users’ black market preference shows limitations for the current system.

Radio said users tend to look for a higher THC percentage — tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive substance in the drug, which is capped at 10 percent in the pharmacy product — or for more variety, such as B. Variants that produce different psychoactive effects.

“This conspires against the effectiveness of the system,” Radio said.

The government now plans to increase the THC percentage and offer more variety in dispensaries by the end of the year to attract more recreational users to the formal market.

Legalization, introduced by left-wing guerrilla President Jose Mujica, who ruled from 2010 to 2015, created a medical cannabis exports industry that has added more than $20 million to the Uruguayan economy since 2019.

Uruguay mainly sells to the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Israel, Argentina and Brazil.

Although current centre-right President Luis Lacalle Pou insists the legalization move was a mistake, the left-wing opposition wants Uruguay to go further.

Currently reserved for residents, they want the market to open to tourists.

“It’s a simple formula: as tourism increases, so does spending, employment and investment. Models like the one in California show the potential of cannabis tourism,” said Eduardo Antonini, an opposition politician and vice president of the Congressional Tourism Commission.

In addition to Uruguay, 15 American states and Canada have legalized recreational marijuana use.