Uruguay: More delays in retail cannabis sales, this time for chemical analysis

In January, Uruguay's Drug Board said that cannabis still does not have the sanitary rating to allow it to be sold in pharmacies

Uruguay’s process of legalization, which began over four years ago, continues to struggle with the commercial side of the program. While personal and ‘club’ grows are both now functioning under the new legal system, the commercial grows and pharmacies they are supposed to supply have been having trouble meeting expected timelines.

However, the government says the necessary pieces are coming into place, with a patient registry coming soon, and recently rolled out a poster campaign against impaired driving. One government leader, soon to be replaced, is looking at drafting a bill to repeal the state-run commercial aspect of the program. President Tabaré Vázquez recently mentioned on a tour in Germany that pharmacies sales were complicated, but expected by mid year.

In December of 2013, Uruguay became the first country to regulate marijuana for recreational, medicinal, and industrial use. The legislation came into force in May 2014, proposing to establish 3 points of access for consumers: personal grows, ‘club’ grows, and pharmacies, with prices at pharmacies set by the government at around one dollar a gram.

Late January of this year, reports emerged that the two current licensed commercial producers are now missing a chemical analysis, adding to a delay in getting product to pharmacies. Last November there was a dispute between the government's regulatory agency, the Cannabis Regulation and Control Institute (IRCCA) and one of the two companies that won a contract to grow commercial cannabis, was concerns over packaging and the cost of irradiation.

The Secretary of the National Drug Board (JND), Diego Olivera, told El Observador that what is being done is "a greater sampling of lots, more samples have been taken and are being analyzed." The delay is attributed to the product apparently not meeting ‘particular demands’ for a health clearance.

Uruguay issued permits to two companies for commercial cannabis production in late 2015, announcing expected sales in pharmacies of three ‘traceable, genetically distinct strains’ by mid 2016. The companies announced an expected harvest by summer of 2016.

Initially, Uruguay gave a timeline of mid 2014 for the entire system being operational, but has since repeatedly pushed those timelines back due to numerous logistical setbacks as well as the election of a new President, Tabaré Vázquez. Vázquez has often expressed scepticism of legalization.

The missing chemical analysis of crops reportedly harvested last summer is just one more reason for delay, along with a lack of desire from pharmacies to sell marijuana, and establishing a user registry. Doctors have also been slow to take part. 

In a 2014 report, the Association of Chemistry and Pharmacists in Uruguay said they felt pharmacies should only dispense medical marijuana, not for recreational use.

Pharmacies who sell cannabis will be required to store up to two kg of cannabis in a lock box. Consumers are allowed to purchase up to 40 grams of cannabis a month (480 a year). The consumer registry will include a fingerprint that will be used to identify consumers at place of purchase. Panic buttons have been recently installed in a handful of pharmacies

Only about 10 pharmacies (of approx. 1200) have said they will take part in the program. Because of this lack of interest from pharmacies, the Secretary General of the National Drug Board (JND), Milton Romani, said they are open to looking at other retail options in the future beyond just pharmacies.

The government has also expressed a concern about an inability to satisfy the market with their commercial producers.

Uruguay has granted commercial growing licenses to two companies, ICCorp and Simbiosys SA, and has registered thousands of people for personal production licenses, and begun accepting applications for cooperative ‘cannabis clubs’. Cannabis clubs allow members to pool resources to grow plants together under the oversight of a club manager who adheres to extensive IRCCA regulations.

One cannabis club recently began issuing ‘tasting’, tours to foreigners, against the country’s rules. The Secretary General of the National Drug Board , Diego Olivera, announced that the club will be sanctioned. Uruguay’s President, Tabaré Vázquez, has emphasized that cannabis tourism is not legal.

The system is overseen by the IRCCA, the Regulación y Control del Cannabis.

Consumers are only allowed to choose one of the three modes of access – personal production, cannabis clubs, or pharmacies. All users are limited to 480 grams a year, regardless of which of these three methods they choose. All consumers are part of a national database via this licensing system to allow for enforcement of the 480 gram a year limit, and other IRCCA regulations.

Uruguaya disallows "all forms of advertising, direct or indirect, promotion, sponsorship or sponsorship of psychoactive cannabis products". According to government comments to media, packaging will be a “three layer plastic bag with zipper closure, for 5 grams of marijuana and will ensure its conservation.” It will also have health warnings about the risk of drug use.

At least one of the two companies that won contract to produce for the government says they wish to export to Germany.

One of the informational posters recently released by the government warning against cannabis impaired driving. Image via elobservador.com. The poster is made from hemp.

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