© 2019 by YVY

  • Kevin Nafte

2019: The year Uruguay enters the big league

2018 was a massive year for international medical cannabis with more than 15 countries creating some kind of legalized framework including Thailand, a country with some of the harshest punishments for cannabis possession and distribution. 


Little Israel, the country with the most advanced cannabis R&D, finally got the green light to play on the big stage as their parliament approved exports - we can expect amazing things from them in the years to come.  The big boys, USA implemented some incredible changes on various state levels, and the year ended with Trump legalizing hemp on a national level. Yet the ultimate trophy still eludes them with the federal cannabis ban in place.  However, it was the US's little quirky northern neighbor who stole the show, topping off 2018 by becoming the second country in the world to legalize cannabis on a national level and already adding billions of dollars of growth and taxation revenue from the industry.  But what about the tiny South American country of Uruguay? Five years ago, this humble little country with a modest population of 3.5 million people and 12 million cows, opened pandora's box by becoming the first country in the world to legalize cannabis on a national level. Little did it know, that decision would change the course of history and create a domino effect of legalization across the globe.   Five years ago, a courageous Uruguayan leader and president, José "Pepe" Mujica implemented a handful of human rights laws including legalizing abortion, gay marriage and recreational cannabis use, even-though the public opinion at the time was very much against it. Mujica had the ability to think long term and outside the box.  As one would expect, implementation was slow and bureaucratic as the government needed to make sure it had complete control and with little to no precedent to follow. The fact that the post Mujica government was far more conservative and did not believe in medical cannabis provided additional challenges and complications.  While Uruguay spent the last 5 years implementing a unique recreational industry, it hardly saw the true potential of cannabis. It was only 4 years after it implemented its famous law, that it stumbled on the reality that Uruguay can not only compete with the best in the world, but bring the title home and become one of the leading players in the international medical cannabis arena.  My partner and I arrived in Uruguay at the end of 2017. After 6 months of market research, including speaking with many people who had tried to do the same in previous years but were struck down by Uruguayan red tape. Nonetheless, we were optimistic that times were changing and decided the timing was right to start a medical cannabis company in Uruguay.  In 2018, things started to change in Uruguay. Most notably when ICC was acquired by Aurora for US$200 million. ICC also held an opening event for its state of the art GMP laboratory with the Uruguayan president in attendance. ICC also recently became the first medical cannabis company in Uruguay to be issued a manufacturing license by the Ministry of Health. Until now, the government had not granted any.  At about the same time, Uruguay's national trade and investment agency, Uruguay XXI signed a historic agreement with IRCCA, the national agency for cannabis control. They recently completed a road map of the industry and its potential and presented the findings to various government ministries. It is currently thought that 75% of proposed large scale investments in Uruguay are cannabis related.  Recently, my partner participated in a conference organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for talented Uruguayans living abroad. The idea was to bring these "active citizens" back to Uruguay for discussions of how Uruguay can develop specific industries. Medical cannabis was brought up repeatedly as a key industry to develop here.  While we at YVY are working tirelessly to build our business, we also understand the value of building an ecosystem. If Uruguay is going to succeed in this industry, it's up to us, the pioneers and industry leaders to make things happen. As such, YVY has taken a leadership role in "CECAM", the chamber for medical cannabis companies recently formed here. We are working together with 15 other companies to lobby the government, organizing projects such as bringing foreign cannabis regulators to Uruguay to talk about their industries, finding solutions for banking challenges as well as planning for a increased demand in qualified workers - growers, agronomists, chemists and much more.  Uruguay has a small window of opportunity now to take advantage of this global phenomenon. The Uruguayan government needs to work closely with industry players, listen to their challenges and make the neccessary changes to allow a flourishing industry that is positive for all the stakeholders - most importantly, the Uruguayan patients who deserve access to safe, affordable, natural and science backed medicines as well as to incentivize companies and universities to collaborate, creating more jobs and knowledge as exportation and international academic collaboration ramps up. The economic benefit is massive - this industry has the potential to be bigger than the meat industry which has for so long sustained Uruguay's economy.  Additionally there is the social and environmental impact - our goal at YVY is to create standards here for organic cultivation, not just cannabis but other crops as well. We want to help small producers participate in this new industry and encourage people to live outside the cities, on farms in communities, growing their own food and supporting themselves through cannabis cultivation.  2019 is a pivotal year for Uruguay, not least a change in government as national elections are held at the end of 2019. For the first time in history candidates are campaigning with the medical cannabis card. Now is the time for action and change - it's time to create a new "La Celeste", Uruguay's beloved national soccer team who constantly challenge and even beat the best in the world. 

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