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Uruguay: Medical Marijuana May Cost More Than Recreational Pot

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In this Dec. 14, 2014 photo, a woman inspects a marijuana plant with a magnifying glass during the Expo Cannabis fair in Montevideo, Uruguay. After state regulation of the production and sale of marijuana, Uruguay had its first cannabis expo with stands selling seeds, marijuana growing technology, conferences and cultivation techniques workshops. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico) Matilde Campodonico / AP

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — As this country's remarkable legal marijuana experiment continues to unfold, an unexpected detail has emerged: It could cost more for cancer patients to buy weed for pain relief than for plain old stoners getting high just for fun.

Citing Uruguay's drug czar Julio Calzada, El Observador newspaper reported on Feb. 6 that medical marijuana will cost more than recreational weed.

A National Drug Council spokesman confirmed on Wednesday that cannabis grown in Uruguay for medicinal uses — like treating pain and nausea caused by chemotherapy, or helping boost appetites for HIV/AIDS patients — will cost more than recreational pot.

The reason: Medical marijuana will be grown separately from the recreational type, by different companies. It will likely have higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the plant's chemical compound that makes users high, and will be grown under stricter controls than pot grown purely for fun.

It's the latest twist in the South American country's breakthrough cannabis policy. In 2013, Uruguay became the first nation to legalize the cultivation, sale and use of marijuana. Probably the most extraordinary part of the plan is that the government itself will sell marijuana to citizens, via a handful of companies that are currently being selected.

But there have been some notable hold-ups in the rollout, and any new details that emerge need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Until a few months ago, Uruguayan politicians were adamant that pot would be sold for $1 a gram, a claim they’re now backing away from. El Observador also revealed that weed with different THC levels will sell for different prices, with only the very weakest at about $1 a gram.

In an interview Thursday with GlobalPost, Diego Canepa, president of Uruguay’s National Drugs Council, said there’s no way of knowing yet if medical marijuana will actually cost more.

“I don’t know how anyone can say that right now,” Canepa said. “It’s impossible to know.”

Higher prices for medicinal weed would make Uruguay something of an outlier among the jurisdictions that have legalized pot, notably Colorado.

“Before legalization both Colorado and Washington had thriving medical markets, and they still do,” Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, wrote in an email. “While the new recreational market is subject to marijuana excise taxes in both states, the medical market is not. Thus, many heavy users in both states are still obtaining their marijuana from the medical market.”

It’s not yet clear whether Uruguay would tax medical pot sales.

Politicians here initially pledged not to tax pot at all, another claim they’ve recently retreated on. As Calzada explained to GlobalPost last September, the government will charge growers a variable fee it will calculate according to the price of illegal street pot.

Amanda Reiman, a marijuana law expert with the pro-legalization group the Drug Policy Alliance, said the price of medical marijuana is only half of the equation.

The other half is who’s paying.

Israel, for example, provides heavily subsidized medical marijuana to patients who need it. In US states that permit it, as Kilmer pointed out, it's largely tax-free but patients still have to pay for it because marijuana is not covered by American health insurance.

Canepa said this is another part of Uruguay’s pot experiment that still needs to be worked out.

The Health Ministry will be responsible for deciding which if any cannabis-derived products, including weed, oils and extracts, will be legal to sell in the nation’s pharmacies, he added. And it will also decide which if any of these will be made available to patients for free.

Correction: This story previously stated that Israel and Canada provide medical marijuana to patients for free.This was incorrect. patients in Canada an dIsrael must pay out of pocket for it, but the governments there subsidize it.

This was first published on GlobalPost.

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