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Uruguay's Marijuana Cultivators Are Gradually Coming Out of Their Grow Closets

Independent marijuana growers in Uruguay are slowly embracing the new legalization laws. But the country's landmark legislation could be at risk in the presidential election on November 30.
October 28, 2014, 2:48pm
Photo by Luis Cobelo

The liberal political coalition that legalized the sale and consumption of marijuana in Uruguay won the first round of voting in Sunday's presidential election, but in the second round candidate Tabaré Vázquez will have to confront a conservative foe who pledges to repeal the weed law if he wins.

Vázquez's opponent, Luis Lacalle Pou, a member of the center-right National Party, has promised he would seek to strike down the landmark marijuana legislation championed by outgoing President José Mujica.

Lacalle earned 31 percent of the vote, while Vázquez took 47 percent on the Broad Front ticket backed by Mujica, Uruguay's elections body said.

Mujica, the former guerrilla who drives a Volkswagen Beetle to work and donates most of his presidential salary to charity, is barred from running for a second consecutive term. His marijuana legalization program remains in play until at least November 30, when the second round of voting takes place.

'Many of us have been cultivating for years, we have a counterculture that is now coming out into the open.'

But the political uncertainty is not stopping Uruguay's weed lovers from embracing, however cautiously, the government's current mandate to let citizens grow, buy, and sell cannabis.

The regulation, which was passed in July 2013 and has only been in effect since August, establishes three separate ways to acquire weed legally.

Consumers can grow up to six plants for personal use, harvesting a maximum of 480 grams (17 oz) a year. They can join a cannabis club, with no more than 99 plants for 15 to 45 members. Or they can buy up to 10 grams of weed a week from pharmacies.

Only the first of these options, though, is currently up and running. In order to register, a person must be a Uruguayan citizen, or show proof of permanent residency, a rule that officials say is intended to deter weed tourism in the country.

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On August 27, the first national registry for legal cannabis cultivators opened in Uruguay, and by late October, about 600 people had registered, Reuters reported. This relatively small number reflects broader national attitudes toward the legalization law. One poll last year found more than 60 percent of Uruguayans disagreed with the legislation.

On one morning during the early registration period, Juan Vaz, founder of the Association of Cannabis Studies of Uruguay (AECU), stood in line to submit his registration. "Everyone who smokes is planting their little plant and asking about the registration," he told VICE News.

Although the government has said it will use data protection software to keep growers' personal information safe, some still say they are fearful their names could end up on some list, and in the wrong hands — a frightening thought for some in a country that experienced a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985.

Vaz said he doesn't agree with that view.

"That is like believing that what you are doing is wrong," he said. "Many of us have been cultivating for years, we have created a counterculture that is now coming out into the open."

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Julio Rey, a representative of the National Federation of Cannabis Growers, has still not signed up for the growers' registry because he hopes to register with a cannabis club. We visited Rey (pictured above) at his headquarters in the city of Florida, about 60 miles from the Uruguayan capital. His base is a tiny room with a laptop, an ashtray, and the starting plans for a cannabis club he hopes to open soon on a nearby lot.

Rey told VICE News that the majority of people registering have been cultivating for years and, although there has been hesitation among longtime growers, he added that some of those who initially protested the registration are starting to come around.

But many are still unconvinced — mostly growers who are cultivating larger quantities, and those who feel they should not be restricted to just six plants.

"The growers are anti-system," Rey said. "Many people are asking, 'What will happen if I don't register?'"

Rey believes the registration won't take off fully until marijuana is available in Uruguayan pharmacies. Twenty-two companies, about half of which are foreign, have responded to the government's call for suppliers that would eventually distribute the product to pharmacies. But that figure is lower than the government's initial projections.

"We should defend the law," Rey added. "For that, we should be inside its parameters."

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Photo by Luis Cobelo.

Gerardo Amarilla, a federal representative with the National Party, argues the law's controls are not comprehensive enough. He told VICE News that the government is underestimating the effects of marijuana and overestimating the effects of legislation.

"The majority of the people will remain in the dark, assuming that there won't be too many controls for home growers," Amarilla said. "Perhaps the only thing it will accomplish will be to promote consumption and lead to relaxed controls."

In a country with only 3.3 million inhabitants, an official survey in 2011 revealed that only 8.3 percent of the population had consumed marijuana in the previous 12 months — or were at least willing to admit it.

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However, since weed legalization became imminent, new grow shops have begun to sprout up across Uruguay. These stores sell grow systems and related products online, and several offer doorstep delivery service 24-hours a day.

Maldonado, about 85 miles from Montevideo, is considered the city with one of the largest populations of independent growers. One company based here, Hydro Point, is an online store that jumped on potential legal weed opportunities as soon as the registration began.

The staff gives guidance and installs all kinds of grow rooms and grow systems, such as hydroponic cultivation methods. According to Ruben Machado, one of the owners of the company, a complete growing set can cost about $1,500.

When Machado and his staff get a new client, they make house calls, studying a client's unique growing situation and their consumption levels. Hydro Point even intervenes in family discussions when someone in a household is not happy with the idea of a marijuana-growing set-up at home.

"Before, no one used to stand up and say 'I am a grower,' because they would have ended up in jail. Now, you don't get arrested for having a few little plants, and there has been a noticeable increase in cultivators," Machado told VICE News. "Those that are 40 or older believe that a registry is like a dictatorship. Those under 40 think the process is too complicated."

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Follow Christian Müller on Twitter: @cmuller17.