Uruguay tends to do things about 30 years after other countries, but in some areas Uruguay has historically been a leader – a welfare state (1919), universal suffrage (1918), abolishing the death penalty (1922) for example. In other respects Uruguay just likes to do things the other way around. So whilst Uruguay was the first country in the world to legalise cannabis in 2013, the authorities focused at first on recreational use (legal sales started in pharmacies in July 2017) and only now are they concentrating on pharmaceutical uses (legal sales started in pharmacies in December 2017).
To many people's surprise (this writer included), the recreational use system seems to be working well and according to government figures, 55% of marihuana users are already legal users, after only a year of sales. On the medicinal use side in addition to the published goal of improving public health in Uruguay, there is also the possibility of forming part of a growing international business.
Law 19172 was passed in 2013 and Regulating Decree No. 46 of 2015 regulates the law as regards medicinal uses. It sets out a number of requirements in order to get a license to produce cannabis for medical use, which can be divided into 3 groups:
- IRCCA approval – IRCCA is the state authority created by Law 19172 to take charge of almost everything to do with cannabis production, including importation and exportation.
- Public Health approval – The Ministry of Public Health must approve any medicine for sale in Uruguay, so logically this includes products including cannabis.
- Central Bank approval – Very strict controls are exercised by the Uruguayan Central Bank through the National Anti-Money Laundering Secretariat to ensure that all funds used are licit. As such applicants must show the origin of all funds used and must also reveal the ultimate ownership of any company vehicle used.
IRCCA informs that there has been a lot of interest in the medicinal cannabis market, but almost all these projects are still at the development phase. The first product to be sold in the local market is marketed under the name Epifractan and actually uses cannabis oils imported from Switzerland.
Another company, ICC Labs, announced in November 2017 that it was investing US$10 million to build a factory in one of Uruguay's Tax Free Zones with a view to exporting to Canada in the first instance. They already have a licence from IRCCA to plant 240 hectares for medicinal use. They aim to create up to 200 jobs – a substantial amount for our country.
Uruguay 21, a government quango in charge of promoting Uruguay abroad, recently announced a public tender to develop a "Roadmap" to identify international business possibilities in this area, how to make Uruguay more competitive in the areas identified, identify potential investors and make contact with at least 10 of the potential targets identified.
The tender closes on 15 August 2018.
The government would like to be a world leader in this area, taking advantage of our role to date as a guinea pig - so far with positive results. At the same time they want to be cautious in approving projects to avoid any negative publicity. If Uruguay can find a way to avoid tying interested parties up in red tape, but still ensuring that criminal ventures or funds are not involved then this could be a very exciting business opportunity for Uruguay, as new markets for medicinal cannabis seem to be opening up almost every day.