By Malena Castaldi
MONTEVIDEO (Reuters) - Pharmacies in Uruguay began selling cannabis directly to consumers on Wednesday, culminating a long and pioneering legalization effort that began over three years ago.
The nearly 5,000 users who have registered with the government in the small South American country will be able to buy 5-gram (0.18-ounce) sealed packets for $6.50 each.
Uruguay became the first country in the world to pass a law legalizing the recreational use, sale and cultivation of marijuana in 2013. But implementation has been slow, and since then several other countries have moved toward a more flexible approach.
In Uruguay, any citizen over the age of 18 can register to buy cannabis. Using fingerprint recognition, they can buy up to 40 grams (1.41 ounces) monthly for their personal use, choosing between two brands - 'Alfa 1' and 'Beta 1'.
Both varieties have a relatively low content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in the plant that creates the high, local experts said.
"I hope I'm wrong, but all the indications are that the effect will be weak, given the content," said Raquel Peyraube, president of the Uruguayan Society for the Study of Cannabis, a collective of health professionals that promotes the investigation of marijuana for medical use.
The product is grown, packaged and distributed by two companies, Symbiosis and Iccorp, authorized by the state. Its production will be carefully monitored to prevent it being sold to foreigners or leaving the country, the government says.
The original government-sponsored legislation emerged during the presidency of Jose Mujica, a leftist ex-guerrilla who promoted a number of progressive reforms in Uruguay.
His argument at the time was that the move would help crack down on drug trafficking, allowing the government to regulate and tax a market that was being run by criminals.
But some 60 percent of Uruguayans opposed the reform, polls indicate. The rollout was slow, and the authorization for pharmacies to sell cannabis - initially expected by the end of 2014 - was postponed several times.
Since then, other countries in Latin America have moved toward allowing cannabis for medical use. A number of U.S. states have legalized recreational use and Canada is on track to legalize the drug by next year.
(Reporting by Malena Castaldi; Writing by Luc Cohen and Rosalba O'Brien; Editing by Frances Kerry)