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Uruguay's Year In Marijuana: 3 Successes, 3 Burning Questions

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 — It’s been just over a year since Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica signed a law creating the world’s first nationalized market for the cultivation, sale and consumption of marijuana.

The implementation of this historic law was part of a landmark year for cannabis. Recreational pot stores opened in Colorado and Washington State, while three other US states voted to approve sweeping pro-marijuana legislation. And back in South America, a middle-age housewife in Chile received possibly the region’s first legal medical marijuana prescription.

But along with the successes of Uruguay’s weed experiment are some notable hold-ups.

For starters, a year into the new paradigm, it’s still impossible to buy marijuana legally here. To date, the government still hasn’t chosen the companies that will grow its cannabis. A new president, taking office in March, who formerly has been skeptical of marijuana use will inherit much of the hard work of implementing the law.

We’ve broken Uruguay’s year in weed into three notable successes and three remaining questions about how the pot experiment will continue to evolve in the coming months.

SUCCESS 1: Growing and trading in pot is now legal

Smoking pot has actually been legal in Uruguay for decades. But until last year it was illegal to grow or buy it here, creating a weird legal situation where consumption was permitted but you couldn’t legally purchase anything to consume.

That all changed in 2014. Under Uruguay’s new law, cannabis users here can either grow weed at home or can join a cannabis “club,” paying fees to be part of a collective that grows and harvests pot. As a result, legal cannabis cultivation is thriving here.

In December, Julio Calzada, the head of the National Drug Commission (whom GlobalPostinterviewed back in September) announced that the government had registered 1,200 cannabis growers, and about 500 clubs, progress he said that was “encouraging.”

Uruguay even held its first ever cannabis exposition last month, an event that primarily catered to budding growers and that reportedly attracted some 6,000 attendees.

SUCCESS 2: Uruguay has shaken up the regional debate on weed

As we outlined when Uruguay first passed its landmark law in 2013, the main point of the new policy was to attempt to begin to shift the paradigm on drug enforcement away from the US-led war on drugs that leaders in Uruguay, particularly Mujica, saw as a dismal failure.

Marijuana legalization was aimed at undercutting drug cartels and therefore reducing crime. Mujica has described the law as an “experiment” for the rest of the world.

And there are signals that other countries, especially in the region, are taking note.

Eight Latin American countries are either very or somewhat likely to loosen their drug policies in the near future, according to analysis by nonprofit research and reporting group InSight Crime. The list includes Argentina, which is mulling legalization, and Brazil, which is debating the issue.

SUCCESS 3: The price of illegal pot is coming down

As GlobalPost reported back in May, the price of street marijuana here has been in decline since the new law passed. That’s largely because local growers have stepped in to meet demand — albeit sometimes illegally — and because pot users can now grow their own weed with impunity.

As such, Uruguay is meeting one of its primary goals: hitting drug cartels where it hurts. This mirrors the impacts of drug legalization elsewhere, notably the United States.

Texas Public Radio reported in December that legal weed in the US appeared to be undercutting marijuana growers in the Mexican state of Sinaloa that supply the US black market. Here’s an extract:

"Two years ago, the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness, in a study titled ‘If Our Neighbors Legalize,’ predicted the drug cartels would see their cannabis profits plummet 22 to 30 percent if the United States continued to decriminalize marijuana.

At one time, virtually all the weed smoked in the States, from Acapulco Gold to Colombian Red, came from south of the border.Not anymore.

‘We're still seeing marijuana. But it's almost all the homegrown stuff here from the States and from Canada. It's just not the compressed marijuana from Mexico that we see,’ says Lt. David Socha, of the Austin Police Department narcotics section.”

QUESTION 1: Will the government get its act together and sell some pot?

This is the big one.

More than a year after Mujica signed the new law, it is still impossible to buy weed legally in Uruguay, a situation that’s becoming a bit of an embarrassment to the Uruguayan government.

Mujica and Calzada have put a brave face on their government’s slow efforts. Mujica told reporters last July that government sales of cannabis must not be rushed. But the fact remains that the vast majority of Uruguayan pot smokers still have to buy their cannabis illegally.

Back in August, the Uruguayan government announced that 20 companies had bid for the rights to supply the country’s pharmacies with pot. The government’s national drug commission was due to whittle those 20 down to about five. But we’re still waiting for news about who’s been chosen, and estimates for when weed might actually become available for sale range from next month to some time in mid-2015.

QUESTION 2: Will Uruguay’s pharmacies agree to sell pot?

Once the first harvest is ready, the plan is for Uruguay’s government marijuana to be sold in private pharmacies. This is a huge bone of contention, and members of the Uruguayan Association of Chemistry and Pharmacy have threated to resign en masse if they’re forced to sell weed. Just how the government will require pharmacies to sell its cannabis is one of the big unanswered questions of this whole experiment.

Incoming President Tabare Vazquez, who takes office in March, has previously expressed skepticism about requiring pharmacies to sell weed. During his election campaign, Vazquez said pharmacies could face violent reprisals from drug traffickers if they openly sell cannabis.

Though he has since said he fully supports the cannabis law, it’s unclear whether Vazquez, who is a medical doctor, will require pharmacies to sell pot.

QUESTION 3: Can cannabis cultivation be an economic success?

The Uruguayan government has reportedly claimed it will sell weed for $1 a gram — the price officials say is needed to compete with the black market.

That’s really cheap by both international and local standards. In US terms, $1 a gram would equate to about $3.50 for an eighth of an ounce of pot. The cheapest eighth of an ounce currently listed online by The Clinic, a dispensary chain in Denver, Colorado, costs about $41.

Marijuana market experts around the world have told GlobalPost it’s “basically impossible” to charge that in an economically feasible way. The government still has yet to prove how it can be done — barring a hefty pot subsidy.

There are all sorts of economic obstacles to growing weed at a profit in Uruguay. Unlike places like Sinaloa or Jamaica, which have warm, subtropical climates, Uruguay has cold, wet winters that would stymie outdoor cultivation. That means growers will have to use greenhouses and indoor growing lamps, which will be subject to the country’s sky-high electricity prices.

Ultimately, 2015 is crunch time for the government to cultivate pot. We’ll learn if it can be done.

This story was first published on GlobalPost.