Three years in, Uruguay’s recreational cannabis market ‘tangible’ success

Three years after Uruguay became the first country in the world to start sales of legal, commercially produced adult-use cannabis, the former head of the country’s national drug agency has deemed the move a “tangible” success.

Diego Olivera, until recently the head of the Uruguayan national drug agency, wrote a column for digital news site Montevideo Portal in which he recapped the country’s experience with legalization.

None of the calamities predicted by legalization opponents occurred, Olivera wrote.

As a “tangible” success, Olivera noted that 4,000 kilograms (8,818 pounds) of cannabis was sold for a little over $5 million – money that did not end up in the illicit market.

Other countries considering following in Uruguay’s footsteps are closely watching the South American country’s still-new market, as well as Canada’s, which legalized cannabis in late 2018.

Their deemed success might influence regulatory and legal evolution around the world.

Asked by Marijuana Business Daily whether Uruguay is ready to go one step further, for instance, by allowing tourists to access recreational cannabis, Olivera said: “It would help consolidate the legal market.”

He added that more product variety, as well as increased production and a larger retail network, should also be considered.

“Also, allowing craft growers – something that wasn’t in the agenda in the early years of legalization – could be a good idea,” Olivera said.

That would open the door to new business opportunities.

But implementation of the original law is still incomplete, many argue.

For instance, insufficient supply has prevented the majority of adult-use marijuana users from accessing the retail channel, which translated into an illicit market that is far from extinguished.

The two recreational licensed producers – Simbiosys and ICC Labs, which is owned by Alberta, Canada-based Aurora Cannabis – were contracted by the government to produce a combined total of up to 12,000 kilograms for the past three years. But they were able to produce only about a third of that.

New production licenses granted at the end of 2019 could ease supply issues.

Some other positive things the former regulator highlights in the Spanish-language column include:

  • Marijuana-risk perception – something that typically worries prohibitionists – remained stable among adolescents and increased among adults.
  • Consumption among high school students did not increase. The average age when youth were first exposed to cannabis actually rose.
  • Consumption among adults increased, but it was at a similar rate than the pre-legalization trend.

“No public-health indicators deteriorated, warning us that we should reverse the path,” Olivera told MJBizDaily.

Alfredo Pascual can be reached at