Sat, Aug 22, 2015 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: Marijuana economy thrives in Uruguay

AFP, MONTEVIDEO

Working at a decidedly unslackerly pace, employees are racing to get ready for the opening of the latest marijuana boutique to sprout up in pot-friendly Uruguay.

About 20 such stores have opened for business in the capital, Montevideo, in the past year-and-a-half since Uruguay became the first country in the world to not only legalize marijuana, but create a regulated market for it.

“This is just the beginning. The market is wide open to everyone,” said 34-year-old Marcelo Cabrera, one of the business partners behind the latest grow shop, Tu Jardin (“Your Garden”).

The landmark marijuana law was passed in December 2013 under former Uruguayan president Jose Mujica, a folksy iconoclast known for living in a rundown farmhouse and giving most of his salary to charity.

Under the law, Uruguayan citizens and residents can buy up to 40g of weed a month from pharmacies, grow it themselves at home or join cannabis clubs, where members pitch in to garden the plants together.

Before the legislation took effect in April last year, Juan Vaz planted marijuana illegally. Today, he is paid to do it and manages a local growers’ club.

“Many people don’t buy on the black market anymore. They plant at home or in a cannabis club. So part of the money that went to drug trafficking before is now going to the community, creating new jobs,” he said.

The law still leaves some gray areas.

One of them is the selling of seeds — not prohibited, but not regulated either.

That has resulted in a sort of legal limbo.

“You can import them if they were not illegally exported elsewhere,” Cannabis Studies Association (AECU) president Laura Blanco said.

Pharmacy sales, the most controversial part of the law, have yet to begin — and it is unclear whether they are set to any time soon under new Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez, a cancer doctor who has openly criticized the policy.

However, that just means more business for the grow shops.

There are about 20,000 home growers in Uruguay, and 15 cannabis clubs authorized to cultivate up to 99 plants each, the AECU said.

“Business is booming. Tourists come looking for souvenirs, and locals come to buy everything you need to grow it and smoke it,” said another young weed entrepreneur, 29-year-old Enrique Tubino, co-founder of marijuana boutique Yuyo Brothers.

The first grow shop, Urugrow, has seen a keen pack of competitors emerge.

Stores like Yuyo Brothers, which started out selling marijuana paraphernalia in 2002, have dived into the do-it-yourself marijuana gardening business, too.

Beyond small business, the most ambitious investors are researching how to take advantage of the non-psychotropic elements of hemp, useful for producing biofuels, textiles, food and cosmetics.

Brazilian entrepreneur Fabio Bastos expects his first harvest in January next year and the 40 hectares he planted — half for fiber production, half for research on medicinal uses of hemp — have already sold.

Sedina, his company, was born one year ago with an investment of US$150,000 and is now valued at US$5 million, Bastos said.

He already exports hemp to China and Canada, and hopes to expand into his native Brazil.

“Everyone wants hemp, everyone wants cannabis products. We are witnessing the birth of a global weed market,” he said.

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