A new law makes the South American country the first in the world to sell the drug over the counter
Alicia Castilla was watering the plants in her garden on a quiet Sunday afternoon when five police patrol cars screeched to a halt outside her home. A team of 14 officers armed to the teeth stormed through her gate and arrested the mild-mannered, 66-year-old intellectual. They seized everything they could find: computers, her mobile phone, books, even an orange squeezer.
They also impounded the 29 cannabis plants she was watering and 24g of marijuana they found in her possession. She was taken to a police station where she spent the night handcuffed to a bench. They treated me like the female version of Pablo Escobar, Castilla told the Observer. But far from resembling the infamous Colombian drug lord who inspired the 2015 Netflix series Narcos, Castilla was a peace-loving, grey-haired author whose book Cultura Cannabis had become an unexpected bestseller. Like many Argentinian sexagenarians, she had recently retired to nearby Uruguay. The seized plants were for her personal use. I make a living writing about marijuana, not selling it.
Castillas arrest in 2011 sent Uruguay into shock. Although the consumption of recreational drugs had never been outlawed in a country that prides itself on its broad-mindedness and liberal institutions, its cultivation and sale remained forbidden. The author faced between two and 10 years behind bars.
Her imprisonment at the womens prison in the town of Canelones became round-the-clock news. I fell into a foul-smelling pit that reminded me of Midnight Express. Cockroaches crawled over the bed, there were rats the size of rabbits in the bathrooms.
Castilla realised she had become a national celebrity when her fellow inmates broke into spontaneous applause on her arrival. The eldest of the 120 women imprisoned there, her fellow inmates nicknamed her the reefer grandmother, a moniker that was quickly picked up by the press.
Thousands marched to demand her release. The protests soon galvanised a longstanding demand for the full legalisation of recreational cannabis. The media coverage was crazy. Legislators started bringing legal marijuana draft bills for me to look at in prison, Castilla, now 72, recalls.
Her three-month incarceration (and the lengthy series of trials until the case was dismissed by Uruguays supreme court last year) finally paid off. The cultivation of cannabis was legalised in 2014, and in July Uruguay will become the first country in the world where its sale is legal across the entire territory.
Its important for Uruguay to advance towards a logical regulation of recreational marijuana, says Eduardo Blasina, director of the recently inaugurated Cannabis Museum located in a large terracotta-coloured property in the old Palermo neighbourhood of Uruguays capital city, Montevideo.
The law gives consumers access to certified, unadulterated marijuana, says Blasina. South Americas war against drugs has been absurd, with catastrophic results no matter which indicators you consider, including consumption. If Uruguays experience turns out positive, it will be easier for other countries such as Colombia or Mexico, mired in huge problems with powerful narcos, to find a better solution than the disastrous one implemented so far.