To gauge international interest in Uruguay's legal cannabis market, spend just a few minutes at a small marijuana shop called Urugrow in Uruguay's capital, Montevideo.
In a period of about 10 minutes, owner Juan Manuel Varela gets a call from Brazil. A man from Canada shows up to see what the market would be for his company, which sells child-safe packaging for marijuana products. Shortly after, two American travelers stop by looking to score weed.
Another lurking pot-preneur, Argentinian Mauricio Luporini, explains to them that under the new law, selling to foreigners is illegal — to their obvious disappointment.
Afterwards, Luporini says that he is also looking to get a piece of the cannabis market.
"Uruguay is such a little country, with such few people," he says. "The speed of the people is slow, you know. But It has a great potential."
A Progressive Approach To Pot
Foreigners are dreaming big, but the locals seem a bit overwhelmed with all the interest in a new law that was passed legalizing marijuana in the last year.
The law allows Uruguayans to register to grow their own weed, or join growing clubs — cooperatives of up to 45 people — for personal consumption.
Under President Jose Mujica's maverick leadership, Uruguay went further than any country in the world: The government will plant, cultivate and ultimately distribute marijuana, too.
Mujica says decades of failed drug war policies necessitated a radical new approach to curb drug violence and addiction. If the government sells dope, the idea goes, the criminals can't. But the reality has proven complicated, and some advocates say the government has bitten off more than it can chew.
"I think the Uruguayan government has been invaded by a big monster, which is called cannabis," Luporini quips.
A Cultural Shift Out Of The Shadows
Under a tarp tied to a rusted car, dozens of cannabis plants are being pruned in the summer sun at a new growing club. The club is located in a small house with Che Guevara and Bob Marley posters on the wall and a sign outside that shows a cannabis leaf. For the club, the new law is about community and progress.
"We don't see this as a business," says Julio Rey, the president of the Cannabis Growers Association of Uruguay. "We see this as a social advance and a victory of rights."
And that is part of the wider issue here — everyone sees the law a different way. Rey objects to the requirement to register people as an unnecessary headache and he doesn't want to see the industry commercialized, unlike the businessmen flooding into the country.
Club members have been traveling around the country to inform rural residents about the new law and how it works. Despite the publicity and world-wide attention, only about 15 clubs and 1,000 people have registered for the government program.
Rey explains this is partly as a cultural issue — pot smoking flourished in the shadows for a long time. But he worries if people don't sign on, the black market in cannabis will thrive. Others are concerned that tourists, unable to buy legally, might turn to criminals for their pot.
Personal Consumption May Be The Easy Part
The government faces even greater challenges. It has had to change the planned location of its marijuana fields — Rey says no one in Uruguay knows how to plant marijuana on an industrial scale — and who will guard it. So far the project hasn't gotten off the ground.
There's also fierce debate about how the drug will be distributed. The law calls for pharmacies to do it, but that has raised other questions, like how should this product be taxed?
"If you tax it like cigarettes, for example, you will make it too expensive," says analyst Ignacio Zuasnabar of Uruguay's Catholic University. "It won't be competitive, and people will still go to the black market."
Pablo Iturralde Vinas, a right-of-center opposition politician, worries about the government's plan to plant and sell drugs.
"The state is very inefficient in the grand majority of the things it does," Vinas says. "So imagine, planting marijuana will be equally inefficient. The government will probably have a great number of public employees that will produce something that is vastly more expensive."
Implementing the law is "one or two months behind schedule," acknowledges Julio Calzada, who oversees the law as secretary general of the National Commission on Drugs, but he says the stages are going as planned.
"This is the first time this has been done anywhere in the world," Calzada says. "There are a lot of things we are inventing from nothing."
Or as another Uruguayan said, with a mixture of chagrin and pride, "We are kind of just winging it."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We turn our attention now to Uruguay where voters are going to the polls to elect a new leader today. The outgoing president, Jose Mujica, was famous for his liberal policies including a law legalizing pots. The frontrunner in today's election is a member of Mujica's leftist party. And if he wins, that controversial law will stay in place. NPR's South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro went to Uruguay to see how that historic experiment is shaping up.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: If you want to see how interested the now multibillion-dollar global cannabis industry is in Uruguay, you only have to spend a few minutes at this shop in Uruguay's capital.
JUAN MANUEL VARELA: Hey, my name is Juan Manuel Varela. I am one of the three owners of Urugrow. That is a grow shop in Montevideo.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Varela lists the products he sells.
VARELA: We have nutrient, we have lightings, ballasts, reflectors. We have bongs, grinders.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Everything you need.
VARELA: Yes, everything you need to grow it and to smoke it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It, of course, is marijuana. And in the first few minutes I'm in the shop. Varela gets a call from Brazil.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then a Canadian trying to sell his childproof cannabis packaging shows up. Shortly after, two American travelers stop by looking to score weed. Another lurking Argentinean pot-preneur, Mauricio Luporini explains to them that under the new law, selling to foreigners is illegal.
MAURICIO LUPORINI: I don't buy nothing on the street, all that stuff.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Afterwards, Luporini tells me he's also looking to get a piece of the cannabis market.
LUPORINI: Uruguay is such a little country with not many people. You know, the speed of the people is slow, you know. But it has a great potential.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In fact, Uruguayans are proud to tell you they're tranquilos or chilled. But with the new legislation, has come a lot of global interest and a lot of problems for the tiny nation. This person quips.
LUPORINI: I believe the Uruguayan government has been invaded by a big monster, which is called cannabis.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is how the new law is supposed to work. Uruguayans have to register to be able to grow their own weed or join growing clubs where up to 45 people can be a part of a kind of marijuana cooperative for personal consumption. And under the leadership of the Uruguay's maverick president, Jose Mujica, Uruguay went further than any country in the world. The government is going to plant, cultivate and ultimately distribute marijuana too.
Mujica said decades of failed drugs war policies necessitated a radical new approach to curb drug violence and addiction in the region. If the government is selling pot, the idea goes, then the criminals can't.
Under a tarp tied to a rusted car, dozens of cannabis plants, a lemon haze hybrid if you have to know, are being pruned in the summer sun at a new growing club. Julio Rey is the president of the Cannabis Growers Association of Uruguay. He's about as far away from the business frenzy in downtown Montevideo as you can get.
JULIO REY: (Through translator) We don't see this as a business. We see this as a social advance and a victory of rights.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When I ask him how many clubs so how far have been formed he says...
REY: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Six to 15. It's not so clear. So this is the thing. Despite all the publicity and world-wide attention, only around a thousand people have registered for the government program so far. Rey explains this is partly a cultural issue. Pot smoking flourished in the shadows for a long time, and people were worried during the election that those who oppose the law could come to power and try and scrap it.
The government too, though, has had to change its plan on where the marijuana fields will be located, for example. Who will grow it? Rey says there isn't really anyone in Uruguay who knows enough about how to plant marijuana on an industrial scale. And also, who will guard it? Which has meant that the government's part of the whole project hasn't really gotten off the ground yet. And now, there's a fierce debate about how the drug will be distributed too. Analyst Ignacio Zuasnabar from Uruguay's Catholic University.
IGNACIO ZUASNABAR: (Through translator) So there are also questions like how should this product be taxed? If you tax it like cigarettes, for example, you'll make it too expensive. People will go to the black market. What happens if the stock of marijuana that the government produces can't meet demand? Can the Uruguayan State import marijuana? Can it export it? All this is extremely complicated.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the center of all this is Julio Calzada, the secretary general of the National Commission on Drugs who is overseeing the implementation of the law.
SECRETARY GENERAL JULIO CALZADA: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are one or two months behind schedule, he acknowledges. But the stages are going as planned, he says. When pushed on some of the problems the government has encountered, he said what pretty much everyone on all sides of the issue has said about this grand experiment.
CALZADA: (Speaking Spanish).
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is the first time this has been done anywhere in the world, he tells me. There are a lot of things we are inventing from nothing. Or as another guy said in Uruguay with a mixture of chagrin and pride, we are just kind of winging it. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.