Uruguay, Washington State, and Colorado all re-legalised cannabis at around the same time and began to work out a set of rules for a legal and controlled cannabis market. In Seattle, it took more than 18 months for the first shops to open, while in Uruguay there is still nothing for sale almost two years following legalisation. Only Colorado has had anything like a legal cannabis market since 2013, which although strictly regulated has developed more or less according to the rules of a free market economy.
Uruguay, Washington State, and Colorado all re-legalised cannabis at around the same time and began to work out a set of rules for a legal and controlled cannabis market. In Seattle, it took more than 18 months for the first shops to open, while in Uruguay there is still nothing for sale almost two years following legalisation. Only Colorado has had anything like a legal cannabis market since 2013, which although strictly regulated has developed more or less according to the rules of a free market economy. Alaska, Oregon and Washington D.C. may have legalised cannabis by referendum, but are currently busy working out a set of rules. There will not be a specialist cannabis shop in any of these three states before 2016. Yet in Colorado, Uruguay and Washington State, connoisseurs can get hold of weed, which is illegal elsewhere, without penalty.
Former president José Mujica and his government passed a law regulating cannabis at the end of 2013, without first looking at the details. Today, while Uruguayans can legally grow potent hemp for personal use, and form social clubs, there is still only illegal grass for sale. At the moment, the government has only vague plans to allow the sale of a maximum of 30 grams of cannabis per person per month via pharmacies. Growing licences for cannabis may have been granted, but who will finally get the contract remains no more than rumour. Even more nebulous are the plans for how grass for medicinal purposes will be produced and controlled. Under government plans, the flowers will be radioactively marked to distinguish them from black market cannabis. They are thinking about the details that will involve repressive measures before the framework has even been set.
The successor to pro-cannabis Mujica, Tabaré Vázquez, is not a well-known advocate of legalisation. He was quite reluctant to take on the project, and appears to be in no hurry to roll it out. The only thing that really works are the cannabis social clubs in Uruguay. They are permitted a maximum of 99 members so as to prevent commercialisation. These consumers’ clubs grow their own flowers and are currently the only way to get hold of cannabis legally, other than growing it at home. But even the mandatory registration of clubs is dragging its heels. In fact, clubs that are not registered are also illegal, but that doesn’t bother anyone in Uruguay. Even the growers hesitate to register their plants as mandated. At the moment, only just under 3000 hemp growers are registered. Since President Tabaré Vázquez announced that the registration system for cannabis users could be used for the rehabilitation of drug addicts, Uruguay’s growers have been unwilling to trust their data to the state.
Overall it can be said that Uruguay has gone to sleep on legalisation a little, not quite two years after the legalisation decision was taken. The new president, in the meantime, does not seem too unhappy about the hold-up.
Colorado has been the quickest to introduce the most consistent regulations. Here, it was relatively easy for hemp pharmacies that were already registered to become licensed as a specialist cannabis shop. Most of the experiences and figures from Colorado point to a regulated cannabis market, however certain problems had to be resolved because of negative experiences. The best example of this are the so-called ‘edibles’. With them, the dosage for patients was easy to transfer to recreational users, which led to some problems. However, the regulation also meant that the phenomenon was addressed openly, and ultimately resolved by means of a decree. Now, a maximum dose and a child-safe pack are required. In addition, intoxicating sweets must be delivered in such a way that they are easy to split into portions. Similarly for the production of cannabis extracts which recently became regulated by law: Since the beginning of July 2015, only licensed cannabis producers have been permitted to produce extracts using butane gas. The use of open fire is in principle prohibited during the extraction process. Infringements are punished with up to 16 years’ imprisonment. Private individuals wanting to produce their own grass or hash oil now need to go back to traditional methods such as alcohol and dry ice extraction, or satisfy themselves with home-grown high quality hashish. Furthermore, municipalities are permitted to identify special zones for the production of cannabis extracts, as Denver has already done.
The laws on cannabis as a medicine remain unaffected, and growing a few plants for personal use on enclosed private land, or indoors under artificial light, is permitted. The thing that really bothers cannabis lovers in Colorado is the ban on taking it in public. Cannabis social clubs, and even cannabis pubs where people can enjoy a joint together, are prohibited. The police have nipped in the bud tentative attempts by activists or citizens simply to set up CSCs through civil disobedience. As a result, Colorado’s best known cannabis activist, Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, has begun the next referendum in favour of legalising the use of hemp flowers. Tvert is busy collecting signatures from people who support the “limited social use of cannabis”. His aim is to allow visitors and private individuals not just to consume cannabis alone behind doors, but in appropriate social settings as well. Colorado’s initiative, which resulted in a legalisation referendum, was known in 2012 by the name “Treat Cannabis like Alcohol”. Tvert says that means unequivocally treating cannabis users in the same way as wine or beer drinkers on all levels. As well as bringing in clubs, the initiative was also designed to allow specialist hemp shops which would offer their customers space to consume products. In a recent survey in the Denver Post, Tvert achieved a majority of 56 per cent. The initiators are confident of reaching the target of 5000 signatures from supporters in good time.
Denver’s voters have pretty clearly expressed that they want cannabis to be managed in the same way as alcohol. Voters elected for similar measures in 2005, 2006 2007 and 2012. So it comes as no surprise to us that we even have the support of many conservative voters,”
said Mason Tvert to the Denver Post.
Washington State did not open the first shop until 8 July 2014. Even the granting of licenses is not yet completed. Because the shop system is not yet ready, the estimated tax revenues of 70 million US dollars should be enjoyed with some caution, and are even predicted to increase. Washington State regulates a little more stringently and conservatively than Colorado. Unlike in Colorado, it was not easy for existing hemp pharmacies to extend their licence for sale to adult recreational users. As a result, the total number of shops is limited to a maximum of 334 throughout the whole state and “edibles” were regulated only in an amendment to ‘I-502’ . They were completely prohibited in the original draft. Cannabis is currently far more expensive in Washington than it is in Colorado. Even growing a few plants at home is still prohibited in Washington State. Only cannabis patients are permitted to have a maximum of 15 plants up to July 2016. From that time, they may form medicinal collectives and grow medicinal flowers, provided cultivation is registered and complies with the Ministry of Health’s regulations.
The clear victor is Colorado. In Uruguay, everything is far from controlled in regulated channels, and Washington State seems a little bit afraid to take its courage into its own hands. But especially where cannabis is already legal, all this hesitation is serving to strengthen the black market, whereas the aim was to weaken it. It was only because of the mistakes that Colorado was prepared to make that the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) that is responsible for cannabis was able to draw conclusions and develop a secure set of rules.