Uruguay, Big Pharma And The Global Marijuana Market

Foreign interests are eyeing Uruguay's recent legalization of cannabis use in its territory. Will big pharmaceutical firms be allowed to move in on this huge business opportunity?

Traffic regulation
Traffic regulation
Camilo Segura Alvarez

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.

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were Mosque 'Al Mouahidin' in the central Dutch town of Ede, and 'Nasser' mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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