Uruguay is celebrating the fifth anniversary of its decision to legalize recreational cannabis use and it now plans to ramp up domestic cultivation to meet growing demand.

The South American nation became the first in the world to permit all adult citizens to enjoy marijuana back in December 2013. Since then the government said the initiative has taken $10 million out of the black market and put several traffickers out of business.

Canada, South Africa, Georgia, and Luxembourg have since followed in its footsteps, but Uruguay remains the global pioneer and it wants to retain a strong domestic industry.

There are now 41,995 people registered to access the legal, recreational cannabis market in Uruguay. However, the country has a population of 3.5 million and it is estimated that many more Uruguayans are still sourcing marijuana from illegal means due to a lack of supply.

Just 17 of the 1,000 pharmacies in Uruguay actually sell cannabis.

Just two Uruguayan firms produce cannabis for recreational use, so there is not enough weed to go around, a problem many Canadians are familiar with. There is also a shortage of distribution points.

Just 17 of the 1,000 pharmacies in Uruguay actually sell cannabis. One reason is that several banks refuse to work with anyone connected to the sale of marijuana due to fear of international sanctions. Another is the general lack of supply, while Uruguay’s president is a doctor and he fears that cannabis can harm users’ health.

Tabaré Vázquez led the country from 2004 to 2010, and then Josè Mujica was elected and served until 2015. During that time he signed off the legalization of recreational cannabis, but Vázquez was re-elected in 2015 and he is not so keen on it. Businessmen in Uruguay fear that it will be left by behind by not only Canada and Colombia, but also countries like Zimbabwe, Portugal, and Mexico. Yet Diego Olivera, secretary general of the National Drug Board of Uruguay, assured the nation that the government will grant new licenses to companies that want to produce cannabis.

Right now 32,000 people buy marijuana from those 17 pharmacies, while 7,000 grow their own – Uruguayans are permitted to grow 480 grams per year and have six plants per household – and the rest are part of cannabis clubs. Olivera is aiming to increase the number of points of sale, and to create a more fluid supply of the product, suggesting the government is still pro-cannabis.

Olivera said he has also noticed a change in the banks’ attitudes in recent months, largely due to shifting attitudes in the U.S., where marijuana is increasingly seen as socially acceptable. He believes banks are changing their attitudes progressively, and that should inspire more pharmacies to sell cannabis. Right now entire regions of the country are without distribution points, but that is expected to change in the months ahead as attitudes relax and supply grows.

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