Uruguay’s Historic Legalization: Six Years, And More Than 10 Million Grams Later

The South American country became the first in the world to legalize marijuana in 2013, with sales beginning in 2017.
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This month marks six years since Uruguay launched legal recreational sales in the country, and newly released data illuminates how successful the cannabis program has been. 

The South American country’s Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis released the figures, which were detailed by Forbes.

Cannabis pharmacies in Uruguay “have sold 10,693,210 grams of marijuana between July 19, 2017, and July 19, 2023,” according to the news outlet.

“Currently, 61,509 registered individuals are eligible to access pharmacies for marijuana purchases. Moreover, there are three companies producing cannabis, and the sale of marijuana is authorized in 37 pharmacies distributed across ten departments throughout the country,” Forbes reported. “Moreover, there are presently 14,592 registered users for domestic cultivation and 10,486 members of cannabis clubs across 306 clubs.”

Uruguay made history nearly ten years ago, when it became the first country to legalize all stages of the cannabis process –– growing, sale and smoking –– in December of 2013.

Reuters at the time called it “a pioneering social experiment that will be closely watched by other nations debating drug liberalization.”

In fact, Uruguay had decriminalized possession of cannabis all the way back in 1974. But cultivation and sales of pot were not made legal until the passage of the 2013 law, which was framed as a bid to stymie the power of drug traffickers in the country. 

As Reuters explained at the time, although other “countries have decriminalized marijuana possession and the Netherlands allows its sale in coffee shops,” Uruguay became “the first nation to legalize the whole chain from growing the plant to buying and selling its leaves.”

Legal marijuana sales began in July of 2017, when the new law made “pharmacists into dealers,” as The New York Times put it. 

But as the Times explained back then, the new cannabis law’s implementation was not all hunky dory. The law had been “contentious for many Uruguayans,” noting that the “thorniest part of it — establishing a system for the state-controlled production and sale of marijuana — took years to work out.”

“Government officials worried that allowing a cannabis scene like the one in Amsterdam would make Uruguay a pariah among neighboring countries wary about legalization. So they developed an onerous registration process and ruled out marketing the country as a mecca for pot tourism. Under the law, only Uruguayan citizens and legal permanent residents are allowed to purchase or grow pot,” the Times reported then.

A report in 2020 found that legalization had not led to a spike in cannabis consumption among teenagers in Uruguay. 

The study, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, found that there was “no evidence of an impact on cannabis use or the perceived risk of use” among youth in the country.

“Our findings provide some support for the thesis that Uruguay’s state regulatory approach to cannabis supply may minimize the impact of legalization on adolescent cannabis use,” the study said. “At the same time, our study period represents a period of transition: pharmacy access, by far the most popular means of access, was not available until the summer of 2017. Additional study will be important to assess the longer-term impacts of the fully implemented legalization regime on substance use outcomes.”

The study, which was billed as the “first empirical evidence on [the law’s] impacts on adolescent use of cannabis and related risks,” likewise found that there was not “an increase in student perception of cannabis availability” following legalization.

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