People demonstrate for the legalization of marijuana in front of the Legislative Palace in Montevideo on 10 December 2013. Photograph: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images
Two firms are working legally to grow weed on behalf of the government to sell in pharmacies as the UN prepares to discuss failed ‘war on drugs’ this week
For a Latin American narcotics kingpin, Guillermo Delmonte cuts a low key figure. The 29-year-old Uruguayan has never smoked cannabis in his life. He’s never smoked a cigarette either, and he barely drinks. When asked if he has any vices, he has to pause to think. “I’m addicted to orange juice. Perhaps,” he eventually says with a bemused laugh.
Sitting in his minimalist office overlooking Montevideo’s main square, and wearing an open-necked Ralph Lauren shirt and expensive blue jeans, he looks every bit the fitness-obsessed executive.
But as the United Nations prepares to discuss its failed “war on drugs” in New York this week, Delmonte is under intense scrutiny as the CEO of International Cannabis Corp, one of two firms now legally growing dope on behalf of the Uruguayan government.
At a small farm just down the road from Libertad prison, an hour’s drive from the capital Montevideo, Delmonte’s company has 3,000 marijuana plants growing under lights and constant police guard. It is expecting to add at least a thousand more in coming weeks as well as install a state-of-the-art Spanish greenhouse to help them grow.
From July, the cannabis they produce is due to be trucked around the country to go on sale in pharmacies as the world’s first state-commissioned recreational marijuana. Any Uruguayan will be able to buy up to 40g a month for around $1 a gram (the exact price is still to be determined). To do this, they only need to join a government register and give a thumbprint to prove their identity.
Delmonte previously worked in the financial industry, but got into cannabis in December 2013 after Uruguay effectively legalised the drug. Jose Mujica, the then-president – renowned for his frugal lifestyle and for being a former guerrilla fighter – said the move was a way to tackle cartels bringing cannabis into the country from Paraguay. But it was as much a reflection of changing views about marijuana across South – and North – America, as will be seen at the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs, which begins Monday.
Under Uruguay’s law, anyone over 18 is allowed to grow cannabis at home or join a club to grow it for them. But the government hoped most people would go for the pharmacy option. It initially intended to select five companies to grow 2,000 kilograms a year each, enough for almost 21,000 people, or about 0.6% of the population.
However, after a lengthy tender process in which it tried to work out if any cartels were behind bids, it ended up only choosing two: Delmonte’s and another Uruguayan firm, Symbiosis. They are contracted to each produce 2,000 kg this year.
“Telling my wife’s parents was the most difficult part,” Delmonte says when asked if he had any problems moving away from finance. “But they knew I’m not a smoker or a dealer and they saw this as a good opportunity to be part of history.” Delmonte’s family – and IC Corp’s agricultural backers, who have experience in soy among other commodities – also realised that if this was a success it could open opportunities abroad.
“South America’s changing, just like the USA,” Delmonte adds. “Colombia is having a licence for medical cannabis. Chile is also growing it. All because of Uruguay.” His firm is applying to work in both countries. He did not mention Mexico, but it is also in the process of legalising medicinal marijuana.
There is also potential to expand domestically. IC Corp has just gained a licence to grow industrial hemp in Uruguay and applied for another to grow medicinal marijuana (a bizarrely different licensing process to that for recreational).
Uruguay’s implementation of the cannabis law has suffered delays especially because of opposition from pharmacists. That is still an issue – a surprise given the scheme’s meant to start in a matter of months.
Carlos Fernández, a spokesman for the country’s pharmacists’ union, says it only expects 100 shops to stock the drug and most of these will be in Montevideo, bringing into question the whole idea of it being a national policy. “We don’t know what the government will do if that happens,” he adds saying they will resist any attempts at forced sales.
“We are still not convinced pharmacies are the best place to sell recreational drugs,” Fernández adds, “but we are starting to prepare ourselves to do it in the sense of giving advice to people about the risks.”
The government is allegedly in talks with Farmashop, the country’s largest pharmacy chain, to stock it, but it is not clear this will happen. Farmashop would not respond to queries about it but when the Guardian visited a branch in the city centre the staff said they did not expect to, pointing to the rows of nappies and perfumes and saying it was a family shop.
For Delmonte, the main difficulties so far have been more prosaic. It took the government four months from awarding the contract to supplying him with plants (it is not supplying growers with seeds), meaning he missed the summer sun and so is facing higher electricity bills than expected.
Another big issue has been staff. “It was not so easy to find the correct people who can do this professionally, as most people who know about it smoke,” he says. “They’re like, ‘OK, I’m going to work there and I’m going to smoke all the time.’ But you can’t – the government is behind us. But nowadays we have a very good team.”
Delmonte’s business is not the only one seeing success due to the law. Montevideo is now littered with shops selling weed paraphernalia to both locals and tourists. A biscuit firm is marketing alfajores – the country’s national snack, two chocolate biscuits sandwiching a layer of dulce de leche – at dope users suffering the munchies. Its yellow “Marley” packaging seems to be in almost every convenience store, complete with a lion waving a Rastafarian flag and a large dope leaf.
Uruguay is clearly not going to go back on its plan even with the pharmacy opposition. The government is already running public safety adverts at bus stops advising drivers, the pregnant and people under 18 not to smoke. However, the future may still not be straightforward for IC Corp. Delmonte is well aware that even if pharmacies do choose to stock his weed, many Uruguayans are opposed to buying it from them.
Some fear appearing on a government register of users. “Nobody wants to be on a list to have to buy a joint,” says Adrian Giraudo, a 42-year-old who runs the Cannabis Protectio shop near the city’s docks. He’s actually Argentinean, and moved to Uruguay specifically due to the law change. “The government says the data’s anonymous, but it could always get hacked.” Others just do not want to buy government produced joints, he adds, since it is antithetical to the whole idea of using drugs in the first place. Delmonte’s clean image could compound that.
“Obviously, I asked myself whether people would buy from pharmacies when I started this,” Delmonte says. “People who already grow it will not. You cannot compare what we’re growing with what people do at home. But you can compare it will the illegal market.
“Here we get a lot from Paraguay and they do not just use the flower, but the whole plant and they put in other things that are not good. So our product will be much better – safer – than that. It will also be cheaper.” Cannabis sells for around $3 per gram on Montevideo’s street.
“If our cannabis is better and cheaper and people still prefer to buy something else, then it’s not logical to me,” Delmonte adds. “We’ll sit down and ask why it’s happening and what we can do differently, but I don’t think it’d make much sense.”