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Uruguay Legalized Weed, but There’s Not Enough Approved Pot to Go Around

Uruguay launched legal cannabis sales last year, but without proper growing skills or distribution channels, most consumers still rely on the black market for bud.

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Photo via Jimmy Baikovicius

Last year, Uruguay opened the world’s first nationwide legal marijuana market for business, allowing pharmacies around the country to sell state-approved weed and welcoming anyone 18 years and older to purchase up to 40 grams of ganja each month. However a new report indicates that the globe’s most progressive pot program is failing to keep up with both consumer demand and modern potency standards for the plant.

According to the Associated Press, only 14 of the nation’s 1,200 pharmacies are licensed to sell legal weed to registered residents, with those select stores offering ganja that is lower quality than street product, yet still frequently sells out.

“Today, I’ll have to buy from an illegal dealer,” said Laura Andrade, a Uruguayan cannabis user, to the AP after traveling by bus to a distant pharmacy, only to be told they were sold out of marijuana. “I have no choice. This system is crap. It’s useless!”

Uruguay passed its groundbreaking adult-use legalization law in 2013, but took until July 2017 to open the industry to consumers. Thanks to strict governmental growing, distribution, and packaging regulations, though, the South American nation has only been able to produce some 10 metric tons of weed a year, or about one-third of Uruguay’s annual cannabis consumption.

“The demand is greater than our productive capacity,” Diego Olivera, the head of Uruguay’s National Drugs Council, told the AP. “We have to address that challenge.”

To make matters worse, Uruguay’s state-approved cultivators lack the decades of growing experience found in California or British Columbia, leaving the nation’s pharmacy-sold skunk consistently less potent than weed sold by black market dealers.

“It’s a complex crop, and the investors behind these companies didn’t come from a culture of cannabis,” Eduardo Blasina, an agronomy engineer who held a minority stake in Uruguay’s legal weed suppliers, told the AP. “You’d tell them: You need to buy 50 fans, something that’s very necessary in some instances, and they’d look at you as if you were an alien.”

For local consumers, legal weed’s low THC content and dearth of cultivation skill is easily recognizable and endlessly disappointing.

“This is the last time we buy,” Jose Luis Bertullo, another Uruguayan cannabis user, told the AP. “This marijuana doesn’t really hit you as much.”

Still, despite the complications, Uruguayan officials are confident that they will overcome the early growing pains, eventually hoping to eliminate the country’s black market cannabis altogether.

“It’s going to be a year in July since the sale in the pharmacies began,” Drug Council head Diego Olivera said. “We never thought about eliminating the black market in a short time; it was always a gradual thing...This doesn’t happen overnight.”