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Summary

Uruguay’s Law to Legalize and Regulate Cannabis adopted in 2013 brought radical change to the country’s approach to cannabis production and use.  The law allows legal access to marijuana in four ways: medical marijuana through the Ministry of Health, home-grown marijuana, membership clubs, and sales to adults in drugstores.  Although registration of consumers and cannabis clubs has been completed, implementation of sales in pharmacies is still underway.  The law provides for education and public health awareness as to the risks involved in the consumption of marijuana.

I.  Introduction

By adopting Law No. 19172 on December 20, 2013,[1] Uruguay became the first country in Latin America to legalize and regulate cannabis.[2]  The aim of the law is to prevent abusive consumption of marijuana and educate the population about its harmful effects, while combating drug trafficking.[3]  The law regulates the production, marketing, and consumption of cannabis, while promoting education about and prevention of cannabis use.[4] 

When introducing the bill in the Senate, the congressional majority report laid out the basis of the measure as an alternative to policies of prohibition as well as a regulation of the market of drugs in order to give the government a more efficient way to reduce supply and demand.[5]  The congressional debate was centered on three main issues: an increase in marijuana consumption, its harmful effects on health and the difficulties to supervise and monitor compliance with the law.[6]

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II.  Cannabis Regulation

Under the new law, the state controls the cannabis industry chain, from production to consumption, including the import, export, planting, cultivation, harvesting, acquisition, storage, marketing, and distribution of cannabis and its derivatives, through the institutions empowered by law.[7]

Law 19172 created the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCC) to regulate the planting, cultivation, harvesting, production, processing, storage, distribution, and sale of cannabis.[8]  The IRCC also promotes and proposes actions to reduce risks and harms derived from cannabis use and monitors compliance with the law.[9]  The National Council on Drugs (NCD), created in 1988,[10] is the authority that sets the national policy on cannabis in accordance with the objectives of Law 19172, with the cooperation and advice of the IRCC.[11]

Although amended many times, Decree-Law 14294[12] of 1974 is still in force with regard to all drugs except for cannabis.  As to those other drugs, Decree-Law 14294 allows consumption, but penalizes possession for purposes other than consumption.[13]

Law 19172 provides that the planting, growing, harvesting, and marketing of cannabis must be authorized by the IRCC.[14]  The authority of the IRCC includes issuing licenses to produce, process, collect, distribute, and sell industrial and psychoactive cannabis; registering users and those engaged in self-cultivation; authorizing cannabis club membership; monitoring compliance with the law; determining and adjudicating sanctions for violations; and enforcing the imposition of sanctions.[15]

Sanctions for violations of Law 19172 include warnings, fines, confiscation of goods or items, destruction of goods, suspension of the offender in the pertinent registry, temporary or permanent disqualification from transacting in cannabis, and partial or complete closure of establishments.[16]

Law 19172 amended article 30 of Decree-Law 14294 to provide that the production without legal authorization of raw materials or substances capable of producing psychological or physical dependency is subject to a prison sentence of twenty months to ten years, except when produced for scientific or pharmaceutical research, or for medicinal use.[17]  However, the production of marijuana by planting, growing, and harvesting cannabis plants with psychoactive effects when meeting legal requirements under the law does not give rise to criminal liability.[18]

Law 19172 decriminalizes anyone who possesses psychoactive cannabis plants in a reasonable quantity, exclusively for his or her personal consumption.[19]  The maximum quantity considered for personal use is 40 grams.[20]  It further provides that anyone who keeps, holds, stores, or possesses in his/her home a harvest of up to six cannabis plants with psychoactive effects or a harvest obtained through membership in a cannabis club that results in a maximum of 480 grams will not be subject to criminal penalties.[21]  Home growers of marijuana are required to register in the IRCC and are not permitted to register more than one domicile for this purpose.[22]  Any unauthorized cannabis patch must be eradicated upon a court’s order.[23]

Cannabis clubs are duly registered civil entities of between fifteen and forty-five members that are allowed to grow up to ninety-nine marijuana plants in specific places.[24]  No member may access more than 480 grams a year.[25]  Marijuana membership clubs that plant, cultivate, and harvest psychoactive cannabis for personal or shared domestic consumption are subject to the control of the IRCC, and must be authorized by the Ministry of Education and Culture.[26] 

Only Uruguayan nationals or foreigners with legal residence in the country who have reached the age of majority (eighteen years of age), and are not incapacitated may become members of these clubs.[27]  Both the clubs and their members must be registered in the Cannabis Registry within the IRCC.[28]  Identity information entered into the Cannabis Registry will be considered sensitive and protected.[29]  Registration of cultivation is free of charge for the petitioners.[30]

The IRCC also has the authority to issue licenses for the sale of psychoactive cannabis to pharmacies.[31]  Marijuana to be sold in drugstores will be produced by a limited number of companies previously selected through national and international bidding.[32]  The legal sale of cannabis by pharmacies is expected to begin in July 2016.[33]  Fifty pharmacies have registered with the IRCC and the Ministry of Public Health since May 2016, when the government opened the registry.[34]  Registered pharmacies are required to install fingerprint recognition software to identify consumers and safety boxes to protect the marijuana in stock.[35]  Registered consumers will be allowed to purchase 10 grams per week or 40 grams per month.[36]  The government faces the difficult task of communicating that people should buy marijuana only through approved channels like pharmacies or clubs while avoiding encouraging its consumption.[37]

According to pharmacy associations, the low number of pharmacies registered is due to concerns that the sale of marijuana would affect their image with regard to clients with traditional values, especially in provinces where the population is against the legal sale of cannabis.[38]

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III.  Public Health, Education, and Social Safeguards

Law 19172 provides for the National Integrated Health System (NIHS) to take measures aimed at education, awareness campaigns, and prevention with regard to the health risks of cannabis use, particularly addiction.[39]  The National Public Education System is required to set up educational policies aimed at the promotion of health and the prevention of harmful cannabis use at the elementary, secondary, and vocational education levels.[40]

Advertising or promoting cannabis in any way and consumption of cannabis in public spaces is prohibited.[41]  Similarly, those eighteen years old or younger and those who are legally incapacitated will not have access to cannabis for recreational use.[42]  Driving under the influence of cannabis will be sanctioned with disqualification from driving if the concentration found in the driver’s body is beyond the allowable amount.[43]

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IV.  Legislative and Political Debate

In 2011 grassroots activists started a movement for some form of regulation of the use of marijuana for personal consumption.[44]  The Comisión de Adicciones de Diputados (Commission on Addictions of the Chamber of Deputies in Congress) gathered all the stakeholders on this issue, including doctors, educators, politicians, law enforcement, students, etc., to debate the different approaches and solutions to marijuana consumption.[45]

According to a report by the National Council on Drugs, the debate was prompted by the failure of prohibition and the increase in marijuana consumption by youth.[46]  The debate was extensive, which allowed the Uruguayan society to be informed on the issues at stake.[47]  Each aspect of the law was subject to comprehensive debate.[48]  The government’s goal was to reach consensus on a legal framework directed at reducing profits for the illegal cannabis market while raising awareness of the public health consequences and harmful effects of marijuana consumption.[49]

The government aimed at establishing legal mechanisms to access cannabis, specifying the amount allowed to be grown for individual consumption.[50]  The government sought to give legality to the marijuana market by managing it, while at the same time obtaining resources to fund support and treatment programs for drug addictions and to conduct prevention campaigns.[51]

The media and polling entities played a key role in the success of this debate by reaching out to all sectors of society, from families to activist groups.[52]  The end product was a law that will regulate the marijuana market to protect the users and their health while depriving criminal organizations of their share of the marijuana market.[53]

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Prepared by Graciela Rodriguez-Ferrand
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
July 2016


[1] Ley No. 19172, Regulación y Control de Cannabis, Diario Oficial [D.O.], Jan. 7, 2014, http://www.impo. com.uy/bases/leyes/19172-2013, archived at https://perma.cc/2JDW-P25C.

[2] Pittamiglio, Rodriguez Folle y Asociados, Abogados, Estudio de la Ley 19172. La Droga y su Influencia en el Mundo del Trabajo 1, http://www.prfabogados.com/administrador/pdf/DROGA%20%20 TRABAJO%201.pdf (last visited June 29, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/8R47-MCJH .

[3] Id.

[4] Ley No. 19172, arts. 1 & 2.

[5] Informe en Mayoría sobre la Regulación del Cannabis en el Senado Uruguayo-Un Debate Histórico, TNI (Dec. 10, 2013), https://www.tni.org/es/art%C3%ADculo/informe-en-mayoria-sobre-la-regulacion-del-cannabis-en-el-senado-uruguayo, archived at https://perma.cc/8V4N-5GPV.

[6] Valeria Gil & Pablo Meléndrez, Cannabis Legal: Uruguay se Cortó Solo, El Pais (Dec. 11, 2013), http://www. elpais.com.uy/informacion/cannabis-legal-uruguay-se-corto.html, archived at https://perma.cc/Q6Z3-UXYR.

[7] Id. art. 2.

[8] Ley No. 19172, arts. 17–18(A).

[9] Id. art. 18(B) & (C).

[10] Decreto 463/988, Se Crea la Junta de Prevención y Represión del Tráfico Ilícito y Uso Abusivo de Drogas [Creating the Council for the Prevention and Suppression of the Illegal Trafficking and Abuse of Drugs] (also known as Junta Nacional de Drogas [National Council on Drugs, NCD]), D.O., July 25, 1988, http://www.info drogas.gub.uy/html/marco_legal/documentos/12-Decreto-463_998.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/TE8X-8KMH.

[11] Ley No. 19172, art. 19.

[13] Id. arts. 30–40.

[14] Ley No. 19172, art. 5.

[15] Id. art. 28.

[16] Id. art. 40.

[17] Id. art. 5.

[18] Id. art. 6.

[19] Id. art. 7.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. arts. 5 & 7.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Ley No. 19172, art. 5.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.;Decreto 120/2014, Regulating Law No. 19172, art. 21, D.O., May 19, 2014, http://www.ircca.gub.uy/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Decreto_reglamentacion_ley_19.172.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/6TAB-VBD6.

[27] Decreto 120/2014, art. 25.

[28] Id. art. 26; Ley No. 19172, art. 28.

[29] Id.

[30] Ley No. 19172, arts. 8 & 28(B).

[31] Id. art. 5.

[32] Id.

[33] Gabriel Pereyra, Casi 5.000 Autocultivadores Registrados y 50 Farmacias Prontas para Iniciar Venta de Marihuana, El Observador (May 31, 2016), http://www.elobservador.com.uy/casi-5000-autocultivadores-registrados-y-50-farmacias-prontas-iniciar-venta-marihuana-n917909, archived at https://perma.cc/ZT35-TNP2.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id.

[37] Id.

[38] Sólo 50 Farmacias Uruguayas Comenzarán a Vender Marihuana, El Diario (June 19, 2016), http://www. eldiario.es/sociedad/Solo-farmacias-uruguayas-comenzaran-marihuana_0_528447402.html, archived at https://perma.cc/L6PN-JXMZ.

[39] Ley No. 19172, art. 9.

[40] Id. art. 10.

[41] Id. arts. 11 & 13.

[42] Id. art. 14.

[43] Id. art. 15.

[44] Junta Nacional de Drogas & Friedrich Ebert Foundation, El Camino: Cómo se Reguló el Cannabis en Uruguay Según sus Actores Políticos y Sociales 34–35 (Jan. 2015), http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/ uruguay/11201.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/JD9N-9625.

[45] Id. at 34.

[46] Id. at 68.

[47] Id. at 69.

[48] Id.

[49] Id. at 70.

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Id. at 71.

[53] Id.