Drug Policies

Legal cannabis market in Uruguay

Did you know that Uruguay was the first country in the world to legalize cannabis? Come dive with us on this topic today and lets find out how the regulatory and legalization process took place in such a pioneering country.

Today we are going to talk about the first country to legalize cannabis in the world! In December 2013, our Uruguayan neighbours were bold and against international treaties, they legalized and regulated the recreational cannabis market. The former president, José “Pepe” Mujica, enacted law 19,172. He believed it was the best way to deal with the country’s health and safety issues, and with political tools he managed to implement cannabis regulation. We will explain more throughout the text how this measure went and what its consequences are in Uruguay and the experience of Girls in Green there!

International scenario

This history of international drug treaties began back in 1912, and we have even talked about it in the text on the history of prohibitionism posted on our blog. But what is important to know in order to understand Uruguay’s drug policy is that during the 20th century, marijuana was classified as a “heavy” drug without medicinal properties. In addition, due to the enormous influence of the United States, there was an international commitment between countries to end drug trafficking and drug production that was signed in 1961.

The war on drugs, as American President Richard Nixon called his policy prohibitionist, was launched under the guise of protecting the population and public health and ending crime related to drug trafficking. But we all know that in practice that was not what happened, after all, we are in 2020 and the use of illegal substances continues to exist throughout the world. Many countries, such as Brazil, suffer from overcrowding in prisons due to mass incarceration, and the consequences of the drug war are evident.

The judicial systems are overburdened, organized crime pulses, users are treated as criminals and a serious public health problem related to the problematic use of psychoactive substances continues to exist. In other words, there are political and economic interests behind the drug war, which failed for what it was proposed. And countries realized that!

Regarding cannabis, the situation is different from other drugs. Numerous studies have proven the medicinal effects of cannabis and since the 1990s member countries have asked WHO to reevaluate the classification of this plant from “a very addictive and dangerous substance with no therapeutic value” to “substance with a low amount of narcotics and with therapeutic value, with based on studies carried out by several international councils “. WHO recognizes such studies, as does UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), and has even announced that it would make the change, but officially, the classification remains the same.

The political fight was big!

Changing international treaties is a little tricky. One option is the resignation of member countries, another is the member country to denounce the treaty to the UN. Uruguay managed to circumvent the treaty in a very diplomatic way. The regulation of marijuana in the Netherlands and Spain is based on loopholes in the laws of the countries and the treaty, but in the case of legalization Uruguay would be breaking the treaty.

Interpretation is the key to Uruguayan justification for legalizing. The Vienna Convention on treaties considers that “good faith in accordance with the coherent meaning that must be attributed to the ends of the treaty in the context of this and taking into account its purpose and aim.” Taking into account that the goal of drug prohibition is to guarantee health and well-being for the population, to reduce trafficking, the South American country based its justification before the UN on the fact that the marijuana ban “failed in its attempt to have a significant impact on on the contrary, it created a burden on the judicial and penal systems, caused profoundly negative social and public health impacts, increased crime and violence ”, and that state legislation would be the solution to guarantee the population health and well-being by reducing crime control in marijuana production and distribution.

Mujica was known for his simple lifestyle and very connected to nature, but the assertive phrases and controversial criticisms also earned fame for the former president of Uruguay. In a speech at the Rio + 20 conference, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, Mujica questioned whether “are we governing globalization, or is globalization governing us?”.

Being the first country in the world to legalize marijuana also made the world turn the spotlight on Uruguay, in an interview for BBC Mujica says that legalization is a fight against prejudice and recalls that the candles used in the discovery of the Americas were made from hemp. “She (marijuana) followed the whole epic in the New World. She deserves that we treat her with more respect and that we know her a lot more” in the same interview, the former Uruguayan president says that he is more concerned with deaths from drug trafficking than with drugs .

Pepe Mujica also states that legalizing marijuana is supporting a constitutional right to freedom. The country has a very strict law related to alcohol consumption, whose production from 1931 to 1996 was state-owned. The country believes that dealing with marijuana in the same way will be efficient.

The other argument from Uruguay, as well as other countries that legalized the medical use of cannabis before, was that the WHO already recognizes the medicinal properties, which disputes the treaty signed in 1961, made before such internationally recognized scientific evidence.

Cannabis use was on the rise, petty drug offenses accounted for 10% of prisoners and 44% of court cases were about people seized under 10 grams. Finally, Uruguay legalizes to reduce the potential risks and harmful effects of smoking marijuana for recreational purposes (Harm Reduction), removing the cannabis market from the hands of criminal organizations and separating the legal cannabis market from the illicit market for more harmful substances.

The war on drugs continues, it is an international position on the subject, but many countries are free to oppose it and are doing so! And Uruguay is one of them !!!

Legal market in Uruguay

Law 19.172 determines which state takes control over the export, import, cultivation, production and distribution of cannabis through the IRCCA (Instituto de Regulación y Control da Cannabis).

The objective of the IRCCA is to regulate cannabis in all spheres and ensure compliance with Uruguayan legislation from a human rights perspective, which values quality public health, combating drug trafficking and the safety of its citizens. The institute supervises, controls and regulates the sale of cannabis, but in addition it supports the articulation and inter-institutional development and research on the medicinal properties of marijuana. The institute also offers cannabis harm reduction tips on its online platform.

To register with IRCCA, the interested party must appear in person at authorized Correo Uruguayo offices with all the necessary documentation. In the case of a user who wishes to buy at a pharmacy, only the identity card is required, for self-cultivation, other documents such as proof of residence must be presented. The IRCCA takes up to 30 days to issue the cultivation authorization, which lasts 3 years and must be renewed. There is no cost to register.

As for associations, they must request a date and time at the Soporte de Red del Correo Uruguayo office to start the registration procedures, all members must register. After the approved registration, the IRCCA gives only one member of the club’s board the necessary credentials and user manual to enter the Club de Membresía Portal, a computer system for registering cannabis planting, production and distribution among members of cannabis clubs. All data of registered members, highs and lows must appear on the portal. Any form of advertising, direct or indirect, promotion or sponsorship of cannabis products, in any media, is prohibited.

Possession for personal use was never a criminal offense in Uruguay, but it was up to the judge to decide whether the amount was for personal use or trafficking, which can often be unfair. With legalization the user can carry up to 40 grams of marijuana.


  • The cultivation of hemp for industrial purposes with less than 1% THC is the responsibility of the Ministry of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries

  • The cultivation of cannabis (“psychoactive“) with more than 1% THC, for medicinal purposes, scientific research or other purposes requires prior authorization from the IRCCA

  • The cultivation of cannabis for personal consumption, or shared in place, allows up to 6 plants, with a maximum harvest of 480 grams per year. To cultivate you must be over 18, a natural or legal Uruguayan citizen or resident of the country.

  • Member clubs, with a minimum of 15 members and a maximum of 45, operate under the control of the IRCCA and can grow up to 99 cannabis plants and have an annual ratio showing that cultivation is proportional to the number of members and within the quantity allowed individually.

If the law is being enforced, we cannot say. In an internet survey it is estimated that there are more than 10,000 people cultivating in Uruguay, while there are only 1,400 applications for the license. Many believe that having to register can raise some flag with information for the government, in addition to believing that marijuana use is something particular and should not be shared with the government. An interesting article about irregular cultivation within a legal country can be accessed through this link.


Hemp production is the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and is gaining a lot of space in food and fiber uses. An example is the “abuelita” yerba mate, which contains hemp and is already a fever among the brothers. Uruguay really is offering many opportunities for local farmers and foreign investors as well.

Regarding the cannabis industry, 9 companies are authorized to industrialize the psychoactive. These companies must detail their objectives and what they produce. All data are available on the IRCCA website. The company Wemblar, for example, is developing active pharmaceutical ingredients with full spectrum resin from cannabis sativa, purified CBD resin from non-psychoactive sativa cannabis and, finally, also develops cannabis oils. Medic Plast develops and manufactures products for human and veterinary use.


It estimates that the government produces between 18 and 22 tons annually and the distribution is made in community pharmacies and first category registered with the IRCCA. There are 17 registered pharmacy chains. Cannabis clubs, identified as such, with membership between 15 and 45 members can also sell. There are 145 registered member clubs.

The ways to obtain recreational marijuana legally (self-cultivation, pharmacies or member clubs) are exclusive and the user can choose only one of them.


In pharmacies, the sale follows the same criteria as prescription drugs. In both pharmacies and cannabis clubs, the maximum amount of THC is 15%.


To buy you must be over 18 years old, resident and also need registration. There are 38,771 people registered to buy the herb at pharmacies. It is allowed to buy 40 g per month in packages no larger than 10 g. The value varies between 20 and 22 Uruguayan pesos (something like 0.50 US cents)

What it not allowed

Driving under the influence of cannabis and consumption of marijuana in public places is not allowed. Advertising is also prohibited.

Tourists cannot buy marijuana in the country, there is no coffee shop type scheme in Uruguay.

What are the consequences of legalization in Uruguay?

The state’s production, distribution and sale policy has brought fiscal control to the government and although without private investment the government has not gained tax, official data released in January 2019 indicate that recreational cannabis regulation generated more than US $ 22 million profit for the government.

The quality of the cannabis sold at the pharmacy is higher than the marijuana that used to arrive in Uruguay on the irregular market. I don’t even need to talk about the natural buds grown in the Uruguayan gardens, much better and tasty to plant and smoke what you planted than a press that you don’t know where it comes from. The autonomy of self-cultivation is one of the main positive consequences of legalization.

The legal market is fulfilling its role in taking control of marijuana from criminal organizations. 54% of cannabis users are already purchasing marijuana for

legal means, but drug trafficking and crime are still a problem in the country. In 2018, there was a 45.8% increase in homicides compared to 2017.

The increase in homicides and drug trafficking is not exactly directly linked to the legalization of marijuana. It is true that there is also a dispute between gangs for what remains of the illegal cannabis market, but what really drives drug trafficking today are other drugs, especially cocaine.

Medicinal cannabis

Medical cannabis was also legalized by law in 2013. And while the government limits the business potential of the recreational industry, it offers a lot of support for the medical sector. ICC Labs and Fotmer are two companies in the sector that are consolidating a market and intend to win an international scenario.

We came to visit a medical production laboratory on our last visit, visit our IGTV to watch!

Girls in Green in Uruguay

We have a very nice relationship with Uruguay. We were present in almost every edition of ExpoCannabis held between 2015 and 2019 and we even had the opportunity to interview the founder of the event and one of the pioneers in cannabis activism in Latin America, Mercedes de Léon. The interview is on here and worth checking out!

We believe that a rapprochement between Brazil and Uruguay is too important to be able to be inspired by regulatory models.

So, did you like to know more about Uruguay? Tell us your opinion! Be sure to check out our content about Canada.

And a special salute to Maria Fernanda Romero, who composed this incredible text for us!

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3 years ago

Excellent article,greetings from Greece!!!

3 years ago

Nice job with the article. Ever since the legalisation, weed has gotten way better in the way of quality. I like to buy my pharmacy weed which has gone up to 340 and ends up being 68 pesos UY a gram. It’s so affordable I love it. Saludos desde Montevideo!