Pubdate: Thu, 20 Jul 2017 Source: Wall Street Journal (US) Copyright: 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Contact: http://www.wsj.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/487 Author: Taos Turner URUGUAY: URUGUAY IS FIRST TO OVERSEE SALES OF POT MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay-Tiny Uruguay embarked on an ambitious social experiment Wednesday by becoming the first country to regulate and oversee the sale of marijuana, a policy that has enthralled pro-pot activists and smokers abroad but has lukewarm support at home. Under tight restrictions, the only establishments licensed to offer marijuana are pharmacies, 16 of which began to sell here in the capital. Pot connoisseurs lined up and then gushed about both buying marijuana legally and the product's quality. "It tastes great," said Daniel Souza, 48 years old, a hospital worker who lighted up in front of city hall. "This kind of weed is great for creativity. It will be good for my guitar playing." The new policy comes as much of Latin America, Canada and numerous U.S. states have legalized marijuana partially, even as several countries continue to have tough interdiction policies against the cocaine trade. Some leaders in the region on the front lines of the U.S.-backed war on drugs have increasingly voiced fatigue with those hard-line policies. But so far, Uruguay has most decidedly broken with the prohibitionist approach, making this country's experiment a test case that is being closely watched by governments and activists on both sides of the drug-legalization debate. The move has also encouraged businesses, like Vancouver-based International Cannabis Corp., which has a license to harvest and export the marijuana it is producing in Uruguay. "We are ready to start exporting to more than 12 countries, and we will do it with a seal of quality from the Uruguayan Health Ministry," said Alejandro Antalich, chief executive of the company. Uruguay moved to legalize marijuana in 2013 under then President Jose "Pepe" Mujica. A former Marxist guerrilla, Mr. Mujica's approach aimed to hit drug traffickers where it hurt most, in their pocketbooks. Mr. Mujica gave the state a monopoly on the market by offering pot prices so low it would undercut street vendors and give regional drug cartels less incentive to operate in Uruguay. His successor was an unlikely proponent of pot, President Tabare Vazquez, an oncologist and antitobacco crusader. But under him, Uruguay now has done what no other country has even tried, controlling the production, distribution and commercialization of recreational marijuana. Supporters include Sebastian Suarez, 22, a window cleaner who smoked pot a friend had bought on Wednesday. "This definitely has an effect," said Mr. Suarez after having a smoke. "I won't be smoking it before I hang outside buildings to clean their windows." That plan, though, has never had strong support here, even though Uruguay has long been socially liberal, legalizing abortion, recognizing gay civil unions and adoption by same-sex couples. Indeed, 62% of Uruguayans oppose legalization, while only 29% support it, according to an Equipos poll published this week. "If people want to smoke pot, fine," said Sara Casalla, 88. But she said pharmacies shouldn't be selling it. "They should be selling health-care products. I don't like this." Pharmacists, to be sure, have been the most unnerved, saying selling pot could put them in competition with illegal pot dealers or that smokers might try to steal their pot stash. "You have to worry about street vendors, like those we have here around the corner," said Javier Ponce, 61, who works at Farmacia Yaro. "We're in here all day, exposed, and turning them into competitors isn't necessarily a good idea. Martin Alvarez, head of San Roque, one of Uruguay's biggest pharmacy chains, noted that the government-set price of $1.30 per gram barely covers operating costs. "There is nothing profitable about any of this," he said. The government, to be sure, is doing everything to keep this country of 3.4 million from becoming a pot mecca-and making it tough for these companies to make much money from this tiny market. Only Uruguayan citizens or permanent residents can buy. And those who buy have to register their names in a national database and scan their fingerprint. Sales are capped at 10 grams a week per person. The regulations, plus concerns about registering with the state, have meant that fewer than 5,000 of Uruguay's estimated 160,000 cannabis consumers had signed up to buy pot. Those who see greater possibility, though, are International Cannabis and a second firm, Simbiosys, a homegrown pot producer. They are entrusted with producing up to four tons of marijuana annually for consumers here. International Cannabis, though, is growing far more for export. The global medicinal market will grow to almost $56 billion by 2025, according to Grand View Research. International Cannabis, which has a 16,000-foot facility to extract medicinal oil from hemp flowers, plans to produce 160 tons annually for medicinal purposes, practically all for export. While International Cannabis is producing now for the pot users here, Mr. Antalich, International Cannabis's chief executive, said, "our longer-term aim was to enter what we see as the medical market of the future, which is medicinal marijuana."