19 December 2017 saw a difficult first day for medicinal cannabis in Uruguayan pharmacies. The day was marked by underwhelming sales, lots of criticism and a general lack of information.
However there were many consultations, with a significant number of Uruguayans visiting pharmacies to ask if cannabis was a potential treatment for various ailments and conditions.
This is how pharmacists described what happened on Tuesday, after the commencement of the commercial roll out of medical marijuana on a prescription basis through pharmacies. 12 Uruguayan pharmacies already stock recreational cannabis, which has been available to the public since July 19 in the now-iconic blue 5 gram sachets.
Officials were nervous, trying not to give too many answers to questions from the press. They also did not want to show the 10-millilitre bottles of cannabis oil, refusing to take any bottles out from behind the counter to show reporters, in case the Ministry of Public Health (MSP) could discipline them for breaking the rules forbidding advertising.
The lack of information among employees was also evident. One pharmacist told a reporter from El Observador that ”we not sell medical marijuana, what we have is cannabis oil” – apparently unaware that cannabis oil is a form of medical marijuana.
Criticism about the products came in rapidly. The president of the Endocannabinology Society of Uruguay, Raquel Peyraube, told El Espectador that the concentration of the cannabinoids is insufficient for adult use and that it can only be used “in babies and underweight children”.
A doctor specialising in epilepsy stressed that the amount of cannabis that patients take depends on their weight. In that sense, he affirmed that 2% cannabidiol (CBD) – the substance that generates therapeutic effects in epileptics – is not enough even in adolescents. He also stressed that a 10-millilitre bottle will only last “at the most one week” in children with refractory epilepsy.
Peyraube affirmed that it is “good news” that the government authorised the sale of medical marijuana in pharmacies, but considered that the product that is marketed is not what most patients need.
“This is going to keep the black market exactly as it is now,” Peyraube told El Espectador.
The specialist was also critical of the authorities. He stressed that although they have “good intentions” they implement the cannabis regulation and control law in a “timid” way. At the same time, he pointed out that the Ministry of Public Health seeks to protect patients by authorising the sale in a progressive manner, but “indirectly favors the clandestine market”.
In the capital Montevideo there are two pharmacies that already stock cannabis oil made in Uruguay with Swiss raw material. One is the Cáceres pharmacy in Pocitos and the other is the El Tunel chain, which has three stores in the capital. The interior has at least three pharmacies (in Maldonado, Salto and Artigas) that also stock the product. The distribution will expand in the coming days as new stores throughout the country receive the roll out of medicinal products.
A pharmacist who declined to be named told El Observador that the commercialisation of medical marijuana “was not the boom” that ensued after the first day of recreational cannabis sales. He stressed that the price of the 10-milliliter bottle is not accessible, since it is around US $70. In turn, he pointed out that a prescription is necessary to acquire it, so patients will have to go to the doctor before you can buy it.
The owner of the El Tunico pharmacy, Marta Grunvald, told El Observador that in recent days they received dozens of consultations related to the new product based on cannabis. The businesswoman said that she decided to sell medical marijuana in her stores because it is “a drug like any other”. She remarked, however, that under no circumstances would she sell marijuana for recreational purposes.
In the Medicplast laboratory, where the oil is produced, they are confident that sales will improve in the coming days. Its director, Armando Blankleider, told El Observador that it is too soon to make an assessment of the economic benefits, but he was enthusiastic because “almost all the departments” in the country are acquiring the product.