Pot economy thrives in Uruguay

Montevideo (AFP) - Working at a decidedly un-slackerly pace, employees are racing to get ready for the opening of the latest marijuana boutique to sprout up in pot-friendly Uruguay.

About 20 such stores have opened for business in Montevideo, the capital, in the past year and a half, since Uruguay became the first country in the world to not only legalize marijuana but create a regulated market for it.

"This is just the beginning. The market is wide open to everyone," said 34-year-old Marcelo Cabrera, one of the business partners behind the latest grow shop, Tu Jardin (Your Garden).

The landmark marijuana law passed in December 2013 under former president Jose Mujica, a folksy iconoclast known for living in a run-down farmhouse and giving most of his salary to charity.

Under the law, Uruguayan citizens and residents can buy up to 40 grams (1.4 ounces) of weed a month from pharmacies, grow it themselves at home or join cannabis clubs where members pitch in to garden the plants together.

Before the legislation took effect in April last year, Juan Vaz planted marijuana illegally. Today he is paid to do it and manages a local growers' club.

"Many people don't buy on the black market anymore. They plant at home or in a cannabis club. So part of the money that went to drug trafficking before is now going to the community, creating new jobs," he said.

- Weed of the year -

The law still leaves some gray areas.

One of them is the selling of seeds -- not prohibited, but not regulated either.

That has resulted in a sort of legal limbo.

"You can import them if they were not illegally exported elsewhere," said Laura Blanco, president of the Cannabis Studies Association (AECU).

Pharmacy sales, the most controversial part of the law, have yet to begin -- and it is unclear whether they will any time soon under the new president, Tabare Vazquez, a cancer doctor who has openly criticized the policy.

But that just means more business for the grow shops.

There are currently some 20,000 home growers in Uruguay, and 15 cannabis clubs authorized to cultivate up to 99 plants each, according to the AECU.

"Business is booming. Tourists come looking for souvenirs, and locals come to buy everything you need to grow it and smoke it," said another young weed entrepreneur, 29-year-old Enrique Tubino, co-founder of marijuana boutique Yuyo Brothers.

The first grow shop, Urugrow, has seen a keen pack of competitors emerge.

Co-owner Manuel Varel, 26, says his biggest investment has been in advertising, "to maintain our market presence while competition increases."

Stores like Yuyo Brothers, which started out selling marijuana paraphernalia in 2002, have dived into the do-it-yourself marijuana gardening business, too.

"Legalization has turned us into farmers," joked a comedian at the Cannabis Cup, a competition for the best marijuana of the year, which drew 1,200 attendees on July 19.

- Chasing green gold -

The young entrepreneurs of the grow shop boom are reluctant to talk sales numbers or profits.

"The margins are small," admitted Cabrera of Your Garden.

Beyond small business, the most ambitious investors are researching how to take advantage of the non-psychotropic elements of hemp, useful for producing biofuels, textiles, food and cosmetics.

Brazilian entrepreneur Fabio Bastos expects his first harvest in January 2016 and the 40 hectares (100 acres) he planted -- half for fiber production, half for research on medicinal uses of hemp -- have already sold.

Sedina, his company, was born one year ago with an investment of $150,000 and is now valued at $5 million, said Bastos.

He already exports hemp to China and Canada, and hopes to expand into his native Brazil.

"Everyone wants hemp, everyone wants cannabis products. We are witnessing the birth of a global weed market," he said.