Stephen Kurczy

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay —After locking up his marijuana accessory shop “Urugrow,” which sells everything from cannabis fertilizer to rolling papers, co-owner Juan Andres Palese climbs into his beat-up 1988 Volkswagen and lights up a home-grown joint with a strong pine aroma.

Palese, 25, appears well-positioned to gain from Uruguay’s landmark marijuana legalization, which legalized the production and sale of cannabis and spawned a booming marijuana market. Still, he’s one of thousands of pot-growers and tens of thousands of smokers who are hesitant to play by the government’s rules by registering with the government.

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“I don’t need to register; I already know how to grow and have ended my circle of buying marijuana in the street,” Palese said.

About 10 clubs and 1,200 individuals have registered to grow marijuana since it was legalized last October. That’s just a fraction of Uruguay’s estimated number of smokers and home-growers, underscoring the reticence of many to give their identities to a government that’s expected take a conservative turn with Sunday’s presidential election.

Both presidental candidates squaring off in Sunday’s vote oppose aspects of the December 2013 marijuana law that made Uruguay the first nation in the world to sanction the cultivation and distribution of the drug. The ruling Frente Amplio coalition’s candidate Tabare Vazquez, who is leading in polls, has threatened to change unworkable aspects of the law and said he would use the state registration rolls to identify smokers for “rehabilitation.”  Opposition leader Luis Lacalle Pou, meanwhile, has promised to repeal much of the law, saying he does not want the state to be “a vendor of narcotics.”

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The next president would appear to have popular support to challenge the marijuana legislation, Uruguay’s most well-known and controversial law passed in the past five years by outgoing president Jose Mujica, who is constitutionally barred from running for a second consecutive term. The marijuana law —celebrated by pot enthusiasts across the world— is opposed by some 65 percent of Uruguay’s population, according to Ignacio Zuasnabar, director of public opinion for Montevideo-based pollster Equipos Mori.

Many Uruguayans fear marijuana legalization will fuel crime, even though President Mujica promoted it as a way to deal with rising homicide and crime rates associated with drug trafficking. Many here are also critical of the government turning itself into, in effect, a drug dealer instead of simply regulating private sellers, as is the case with alcohol or tobacco.

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“There are a lot of points that are not easy to solve, and each solution will have problems,” said Zuasnabar. “What happens if the government has a bad growing year and demand is larger than capacity, will it import marijuana? Will it buy from the cocaleros in Bolivia and Paraguay?”

Pot law expanded legal guarantees

It has been legal to smoke marijuana in Uruguay since 1998, but Mujica’s law legalized home-production and created avenues for distribution through clubs and pharmacies for any citizen over 18 years old who registers with the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA). Home-growers are allowed up to six plants, and growing clubs of 15-45 people are allowed up to 99 plants.

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State-grown pot was also expected to be available for sale in pharmacies by end of 2014, but this has been delayed until sometime next year. The government is now holding a public tender process for marijuana producers, and proposals were recently narrowed down to five bidders, according to Congressman Nicolas Nuñez, one of the authors of the law. He said the updated timeline is for pharmacies to sell pot by July 1.

“The hope is to have a process that works, rather than to rush out a bad program,” Nuñez said. “It’s very important to remember that pharmacies are just one of three ways to consume. The idea is to present another way to consume safely and securely.”

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Nuñez is confident that any potential attack on the law will be defended by a parliament controlled by the liberal Frente Amplio coalition of Mujica, who is returning as a legislator when his presidential term ends in March. Nuñez said it’s problematic that more smokers and growers are not registering, which is undermining the intent of the law, but many Uruguayans, especially smokers and growers, are skeptical whether pharmacies can provide a reliable and attractive product competitive with street prices.

“What do pharmacies know about growing and selling weed?” asked Juan Vaz, 48, a spokesperson and founder of the Uruguayan Cannabis Studies Association (AECU), which estimates there are at least 10,000 growers and up to 40,000 in Uruguay.

On a recent day at the AECU, set in an old colonial building of Montevideo painted with purple swirls of psychedelic plants, as several adults passed a joint in the lounge area and flipped through how-to literature for growing marijuana, a well-dressed lawyer led one of many tutorials in recent weeks on how to form a pot-growing club. Vaz was the first Uruguayan the register to legally grow in October, seeing home-growing as a way of ending reliance on dealers. Since then he and the AECU have been providing assistance to other individuals and clubs to sign the tangle of paperwork needed to register.

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“I’m proud to be an Uruguayan because it’s a free country where now you can grow whatever plant that you want in your house,” said Camilo Millot, 49, a member of AECU and also to a newly formed growing club. “Who has the right to tell you what plants are good or not good to grow? It’s nature.”

Vaz, who has a wife and three kids, was jailed from 2007-2008 for raising cannabis, and he does believe in the law's potential to undermine street dealing. He started growing more than two decades ago when he realized, “Why should I buy from a dealer what I can grow at home?”

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Upstairs from the AECU at Vaz’s Planet Ganja retail store, a shopper eyed $100 bongs and cannabis-print underwear. Vaz, who is missing Sunday’s runoff election so that he can attend the annual Cannabis Cup Amsterdam, said he outfits startup growers with a greenhouse tent, heating lamps, and ventilating fans for about $2,000.

Back at Urugrow, Palese said that his store has grown over the past two years from an online seller, to a small retail shop, to a large downtown store trafficked by 35-40 people a day. He estimated about 10 such “growshops” in Uruguay, and another handful in the process of opening.

A high school dropout and the son of a family court judge, Palese said he appreciates what Mujica’s marijuana law has done for his business. But he has no intent register or scale down his personal production to six plants as required by law.

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“It’s ridiculous that we’re told how much we can smoke,” he said, setting down his still-smoldering joint and turning on the engine, which started with a hesitant grumble. “How can you be so arbitrary and rigid about that?”

Stephen Kurczy, a Brazil correspondent, has reported from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the jungles of the Amazon. Somewhere along the way he became addicted to açaí, a purple slushy made from the powerfruit.