DENVER — Legal marijuana will soon be affordable and well-controlled in Uruguay, according to the man whose administration just released the rules that will govern the legalization of the drug in the South American country this year.
One might think that would create some mutual respect between Uruguay President Jose Mujica and the lawmakers who helped legalize the drug in Colorado. It doesn’t seem that way.
“It’s a complete fiction what they do in Colorado” in terms of controlling the sale and use of legal marijuana, Mujica told the Associated Press in an interview last week.
That being said, Mujica doesn’t believe his own’s administration’s approach to marijuana legalization will be above reproach — least of all in his own country. “They’ll label us elderly reactionaries,” he said.
But that’s fine by him.
“This isn’t a policy that seeks to expand marijuana consumption,” Mujica said. “What it aims to do is keep it all within reason, and not allow it to become an illness. No addiction is good. We aren’t going to promote smokefests, bohemianism, all this stuff they try to pass off as innocuous when it isn’t.”
And though he may be 78 years old, it’s not as if Mujica is a crusty, old choir boy. In the 1960s, he was a guerrilla leader of Tupamaros, an armed political movement that drew a great deal of inspiration from Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary whose face was plastered on a bevy of t-shirts worn by attendees at Denver’s 4/20 smokefest last month.
That likely won’t prevent a great deal of marijuana users in Colorado from insinuating that Mujica’s regulation-heavy marijuana policy is more akin to Big Brother than a Marxist revolutionary.
For starters, not only will Uruguayan sellers and producers need state licenses, marijuana consumers will need to be licensed as well. And while some efforts are being made to keep the identity of consumers private — including the usage of fingerprint machines at pharmacies — every marijuana purchase in Uruguay will be monitored by the government.
Mostly, Uruguay’s government wants to regulate the amount of marijuana available to consumers, and has insisted that its electronic monitoring systems will ensure that no one person purchases more than 10 grams a week.
Marijuana customers in Colorado are not permitted to purchase more than one ounce of marijuana (approximately 28 grams) at any store, but there is nothing to prevent them from going down any other pot shop in the state and purchasing just as much.
According to PriceOfWeed.com, which compiles price indexes for marijuana across the United States based on user input, the lowest average price of an ounce of marijuana in Colorado is $196.84. Meanwhile, the average price of an ounce of pot in Uruguay is expected to be $28, considering the expected going rate of $1 per gram in the country (again, there are about 28 grams in on ounce).
Even considering the average household income in Colorado is $58,000 a year compared to $23,000 a year in Uruguay, the percentage of income the average Uruguayan household would have to spend on an ounce of marijuana is still considerably less than the amount paid by the average Coloradan household — by about 35 percent.
But then there is the question of quality — typically measured in a marijuana strain’s THC potency.
Though lawmakers are progressing in their efforts to regulate THC levels in marijuana edibles after police linked such products to a pair of Colorado deaths in April, the state does not have any legislation in place to regulate the THC levels in marijuana plants. In Uruguay, the state has introduced such regulations, setting the high-point for THC content in one of the six strains of marijuana its intending to sell at 15 percent.
That would lead many to believe that, at least in terms of potency, higher-quality marijuana is available to the consumer in Colorado. That very well may be true. April’s edition of “High Times” magazine, which promised to provide a breakdown of the “Strongest Strains on Earth,” indicated its editors found marijuana with potencies ranging from 25 to 28 percent THC.
However, the University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring program suggested that though it has seen marijuana samples with THC potency as high as 36 percent, the average THC potency in U.S. marijuana was 12.3 percent in 2012 — fairly close to the 15-percent high mark set in Uruguay.
It seems reasonable that the average THC content in U.S. marijuana has risen since 2012 — maybe substantially. Why? Customer demand, according to Tim Cullen, the owner of Evergreen Apothecary, which operates two retail marijuana stores in Denver.
“I see people walk in all the time saying, ‘Give me the strongest thing you have,’” Cullen said. “It’s bizarre. … Can you imagine being in a liquor store and having someone say, ‘Just give me your strongest stuff?’ But for now, that’s what a lot of people seem to want.”
It’s beyond bizarre to Robert MacCoun, a behavioral scientist at U.C. Berkeley who has studied drug policy in the U.S. and abroad. It’s an “arms race,” where growers who produce the highest-octane strains of marijuana are rewarded annually at the Cannabis Cup, which was held in Denver last month.
That, Cullen feels, is a problem. And it’s the sort of problem that may ultimately prove politicians like Mujica wise.
“(Marijuana producers) are finally turning the drug into everything the U.S. government once said it was,” MacCoun told PBS. “It used to be we could say the government exaggerated the threat of this ‘crazy weed,’ but these new potent strains belie that.”