Uruguay's Cannabis Clubs Begin Registration Process - Will They Avoid the Spanish Model?

The regulatory body overseeing Uruguay’s new marijuana law, the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), has begun the latest stage in the rollout of the measure: registering the country’s first cannabis clubs. So far, the membership club system in Uruguay promises to be more tightly regulated than comparable initiatives elsewhere.

On October 30, the IRCCA announced that it would begin registering cannabis clubs, one of the three separate methods of legally accessing the drug (the other two being home cultivation of up to six plants or purchasing the drug in pharmacies). Under the terms of the 2013 law, clubs can have between 15 and 45 members and grow up to 99 plants. Their annual yield is capped at 480 grams per user, the same limit faced by those who choose to obtain marijuana in pharmacies (though the latter is further restricted to a weekly purchase of up to 10 grams). Any surplus yield must be turned over to the IRCCA.

At least 17 separate clubs have begun the application process. According to La Republica, 10 of these are affiliated with the Association of Cannabis Studies of Uruguay (AECU) and six are under the banner of the Federation of Cannabis Cultivators. A separate club has been started by Proderechos, the human rights group that has been active in promoting marijuana regulation since the law’s inception.

Judging from official regulations and the IRCCA’s rules, it seems authorities in Uruguay are hoping to avoid the pitfalls of similar experiments in places like Spain’s Catalonia and Basque Country, which have been criticized for being too lax about club membership requirements.

In any case, it is clear that starting up a cannabis club involves more than mere paperwork. In order to register with the IRCCA, prospective club organizers must first register as civil associations with the Ministry of Education and Culture. They then need to obtain the space which will be used to grow plants, taking into account the IRCCA’s 13-point guidelines on infrastructure, security and club operations. Among other things, the rules state that:

  • Members must be over 18, either Uruguayan citizens or permanent residents. Minors may not enter clubs under any circumstances.
  • Prospective club organizers must present a “cultivation plan” alongside their application, detailing strategies to grow and distribute cannabis to members securely.
  • The plan also must detail the club’s hours of operations, outside of which any business activity is strictly prohibited.
  • Clubs must have a security system that covers every entrance and opening to the property, and make sure that any surveillance equipment is kept in working order.
  • Club facilities cannot be located within 150 meters of a school or drug rehabilitation centers.
  • All activities must be contained on club property, with no use of the sidewalk or adjacent public areas. 
  • All advertisement is prohibited, as is sponsoring any events off club property. Even posting any kind of sign on the exterior of the property that identifies it as a cannabis club is explicitly forbidden.

The IRCCA rules are on top of the guidelines already laid out in the executive regulations issued in May, which require clubs to file an updated membership log with the institute, recording every new member. Additionally, clubs must keep records of every transaction made, to be turned over to the IRCCA on a monthly basis.

These blueprints make for an interesting comparison to the Catalan and Basque clubs in Spain, which are famously flexible in their adherence to membership requirements. These loopholes have accompanied the emergence of a booming Spanish cannabis club industry -- reportedly going from 40 in 2010 to more than 700 today -- that is increasingly catering to tourists. Many clubs in Barcelona have even offered membership to interested parties by Internet, or over the phone, a practice that contributed to the city’s June decision to issue a one-year moratorium on new licenses, and the subsequent closure of a third of the city’s clubs in August.

At least on paper, it seems Uruguay is trying to make its clubs more secure and accountable. Still, there is room to doubt how closely the rules will be applied. Juan Vaz, the chief spokesman for the AECU cannabis association, told AFP recently that, “all of the clubs that have applied are already functioning.”

It’s not clear to what extent the clubs are already distributing, but ensuring that authorities in the South American country don’t end up facing a regulatory headache like their Spanish counterparts will depend on how tightly the rules are implemented. As only time will tell how strictly the IRCCA regulations will be applied, law enforcement operations in the coming months may bring clues as to how officials intend to keep clubs in line and prevent abuse of the system.

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Geoffrey Ramsey is a digital communications officer for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). He previously worked as a researcher and writer for InSight Crime, a think-tank dedicated to tracking organized crime and corruption in the Americas, and was author of the Pan American Post.

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