Mar­i­juana econ­omy thrives in Uruguay af­ter le­gal­iza­tion

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY ALBA TOBELLA

Work­ing at a de­cid­edly un­slack­erly pace, em­ploy­ees are rac­ing to get ready for the open­ing of the latest mar­i­juana bou­tique to sprout up in pot- friendly Uruguay.

About 20 such stores have opened for busi­ness in Mon­te­v­ideo, the cap­i­tal, in the past year and a half, since Uruguay be­came the first coun­try in the world to not only le­gal­ize mar­i­juana but cre­ate a reg­u­lated mar­ket for it.

“This is just the be­gin­ning. The mar­ket is wide open to ev­ery­one,” said 34- year- old Marcelo Cabr­era, one of the busi­ness part­ners be­hind the latest grow shop, Tu Jardin ( Your Gar­den).

The land­mark mar­i­juana law passed in De­cem­ber 2013 un­der for­mer pres­i­dent Jose Mu­jica, a folksy icon­o­clast known for liv­ing in a run- down farm­house and giv­ing most of his salary to char­ity.

Un­der the law, Uruguayan cit­i­zens and res­i­dents can buy up to 40 grams of weed a month from phar­ma­cies, grow it them­selves at home or join cannabis clubs where mem­bers pitch in to gar­den the plants to­gether.

Be­fore the leg­is­la­tion took ef­fect in April last year, Juan Vaz planted mar­i­juana il­le­gally. To­day he is paid to do it and man­ages a lo­cal grow­ers’ club.

“Many peo­ple don’t buy on the black mar­ket any­more. They plant at home or in a cannabis club. So part of the money that went to drug traf­fick­ing be­fore is now go­ing to the com­mu­nity, cre­at­ing new jobs,” he said.

Weed of the Year

The law still leaves some gray ar­eas.

One of them is the selling of seeds — not pro­hib­ited, but not reg­u­lated ei­ther.

That has re­sulted in a sort of le­gal limbo.

“You can im­port them if they were not il­le­gally ex­ported else­where,” said Laura Blanco, pres­i­dent of the Cannabis Stud­ies As­so­ci­a­tion ( AECU).

Phar­macy sales, the most con­tro­ver­sial part of the law, have yet to be­gin — and it is un­clear whether they will any time soon un­der the new pres­i­dent, Tabare Vazquez, a can­cer doc­tor who has openly crit­i­cized the pol­icy.

But that just means more busi­ness for the grow shops.

There are cur­rently some 20,000 home grow­ers in Uruguay, and 15 cannabis clubs au­tho­rized to cul­ti­vate up to 99 plants each, ac­cord­ing to the AECU.

“Busi­ness is boom­ing. Tourists come look­ing for sou­venirs, and lo­cals come to buy ev­ery­thing you need to grow it and smoke it,” said another young weed en­tre­pre­neur, 29- year- old En­rique Tu­bino, co- founder of mar­i­juana bou­tique Yuyo Broth­ers.

The first grow shop, Uru­grow, has seen a keen pack of com­peti­tors emerge.

Co- owner Manuel Varel, 26, says his big­gest in­vest­ment has been in advertising, “to main­tain our mar­ket pres­ence while com­pe­ti­tion in­creases.”

Stores like Yuyo Broth­ers, which started out selling mar­i­juana para­pher­na­lia in 2002, have dived into the do- it- your­self mar­i­juana gar­den­ing busi­ness, too.

“Le­gal­iza­tion has turned us into farm­ers,” joked a co­me­dian at the Cannabis Cup, a com­pe­ti­tion for the best mar­i­juana of the year, which drew 1,200 at­ten­dees on July 19.

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