After Uruguay's new law last year that legalized the consumption and production of marijuana, government laboratories and authorities from Canada, Chile and Israel contacted their Uruguayan counterparts about the possibility of purchasing cannabis for medicinal use.

Though the recent law permits the sale, research and consumption of cannabis, it does not yet stipulate any regulations for exportation or investment by the world's large pharmaceutical firms. Still, some expect the government of President José Múgica to eventually open a global market for marijuana, with the potential of turning Uruguay into a new center of biotechnology research around the effects of the drug.

"It is true, they have called us for advice on settling in Uruguay," Diego Cánepa, President of Uruguay's National Drug Council, told the Montevideo daily El Observador. "While this was not the law's intended objective, Uruguay would become a biotechnology pole this way."  

Until recently, he said, "marijuana for medicine was only considered as a pain killer, but there are studies now on some of its derivatives as medicines." Inocencio Bertoni, an official of the Livestock and Agriculture Ministry who took part in formulating the law's provisions, says the government is currently focused on regulating the domestic market.

While the debate is ample in scope, it remains unclear exactly how Uruguay could become such a new center of research in biotechnology. The only part of the law dealing with foreigners is to allow residents to consume, cultivate and sell marijuana inside Uruguay under the same conditions governing Uruguayans. It says nothing on the possibility of exports or who might be tasked with producing cannabis for foreign sale. There is also the question of whether or not selling the plant for medicinal or recreational use would be subject to the same conditions.

"Several things could happen here," says Juan Daniel Gómez, a researcher from Bogotá's Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, a private university. "One is that the Uruguayan state decides to restrict production, and winds up taking over research and later exportation. Or it could restrict these to its nationals — or another possibility is that it will allow large laboratories to come and do research, then sell, probably with monopolistic practices, in other countries." 

Marijuana, he says, could go from being a "forbidden substance to being totally controlled by market powers."

Research and recreation

For years now, scientists have been working to "identify and produce marijuana strains for therapeutic uses," says the Bogotá city health official Rubén Ramírez, currently leading research that includes importing cannabis from Spain and the Netherlands to reduce withdrawal symptoms among users of bazuco, or crack cocaine. 

Cultivators in Uruguay joined up on Dec. 29 to form the National Federation of Cannabis Cultivators, both to establish dialogue with the Government on the law's implementation, but also with the aim of entering the realm of research and manufacture of medicines and therapeutic products. Over the next four months, when the law's regulations are to be discussed, they will surely oppose opening the doors wide open to international laboratories engaging in research and foreign sales.

It is quite probable however that the Uruguayan government will have no other option but to let the large pharmaceutical firms in. It is a global market indeed, including other examples: cannabis-based medicines being produced in the United Kingdom; the United States, which continues to spearhead the global war on drugs, is gradually developing an internal market for cannabis, especially since the states of Washington and Colorado approved the full-fledged legalization of marijuana; the Netherlands produces marijuana consumed by some 26,000 Canadians who are prescribed products with cannabis.

All told, some 350 million people in the world consume this weed, and some people have undoubtedly realized that marijuana has sales potential like any other product. In the future though we shall have to be sure to distinguish the goals of profit from public health.