Pharmacist Rossana Rilla works at her own drugstore in downtown Montevideo, Uruguay on June 23, 2016. She is concerned that selling marijuana will make her store a target for burglaries. (Matilde Campodonico, The Associated Press)

A majority of pharmacists in Uruguay don’t want to sell pot, here’s why

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Rossana Rilla could sell marijuana under Uruguay’s pioneering law that lets pharmacies distribute pot. But she says there is no way she will.

In her 28 years as a pharmacist, she has been beaten, dragged across the floor and threatened by thieves at gunpoint and with a grenade. She fears that selling marijuana would only make her store a bigger target for robbers and burglars.

“You see their faces and you can tell right away that they are not consumers who are here just to buy” marijuana, Rilla said about the “suspicious people” who have recently been coming into her Montevideo pharmacy asking if she sells pot.

She isn’t alone in avoiding the government’s marijuana program. Most of the country’s pharmacists haven’t signed on, citing security concerns and complaining of paperwork, cost increases or opposition from customers to selling legalized pot.

Uruguay legalized the cultivation and sale of marijuana in 2013 in a bid to create the world’s first government-regulated national marketplace for pot. The goal was to fight rising homicide and crime rates associated with drug trafficking in the South American country.

But while the government wants to start selling marijuana at pharmacies in the coming weeks, so far only 50 out of 1,200 pharmacies are registered, stoking a debate over how the drug should be distributed.

“I don’t see the need to get into a conflict with people who are already selling weed in the neighborhoods,” said Marcelo Trujillo, who owns three pharmacies in Montevideo’s Cerro neighborhood.

“I just don’t want to expose myself or my employees,” he said. Next to him, a worker repaired a glass that was shattered during a recent robbery attempt.

The law allows for the growing of pot by licensed individuals, the formation of growers and users clubs, and the sale by pharmacies of 40 grams of marijuana a month to registered users. While the plan has been widely applauded globally and seen as going beyond marijuana legislation in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington, most Uruguayans oppose it.

“My customers generally don’t agree with the plan,” said Isabel Regent, head of the Association of Interior Pharmacies, which represents businesses outside the capital, Montevideo. “Besides the fear of robberies, enrolling in the system means a hike in costs and having to be up to date with all the paperwork demanded by the health ministry, and not all pharmacies are in a condition to do this.”

Regent owns a pharmacy in Punta del Este, an exclusive seaside resort where tens of thousands of tourists from neighboring Argentina come to vacation each year. But she decided not to enroll in the government plan. She wouldn’t be able to sell pot to foreign tourists because the law only allows sales to Uruguayan citizens and legal residents over age 18.

Pharmacies in three of the four Uruguayan states bordering Brazil have also declined to enroll in the plan.

No studies have been conducted to see if pharmacists would face extra risks from selling pot, but most feel it’s just not worth the risk.

“I don’t have the security conditions to sell marijuana,” said Mariana Etchessarry, from a pharmacy in Montevideo’s Cerro neighborhood. “I don’t understand why they can’t sell it at police stations. They’re located in every neighborhood and have 24-hour security.”

During a recent meeting with government officials, a union leader claimed that some pharmacists have been threatened by drug dealers, said Gonzalo Miranda, a spokesman for the Uruguayan Chamber of Pharmacies, an umbrella group for large pharmacy chains.

Fernando Gil of the Interior Ministry’s communications office said that no pharmacists had reported any threats to police.

Some pharmacists say their lack of interest in participating goes beyond security concerns.

“I oppose as a matter of principles,” said Julio Gadea. “I’ve been a pharmacist for 40 years. Pharmacies were created to sell medicines, not drugs.”

Experts say delays in the marijuana initiative stem from the fact that no other country has attempted such an ambitious endeavor and that authorities still lack detailed plans and rules for regulating the market.

“We sell all legal drugs and if marijuana is now legal, there’s no reason not to sell it,” said a pharmacist who has enrolled in the government’s marijuana plan. He insisted on not being quoted by name because he did not want to upset his clients, who mostly oppose legalizing pot.

“I signed up but I still don’t know if I’ll sell it,” the pharmacist said. “I’m missing a lot of information. They haven’t explained anything to us about the information program that will be used or how the drug will be sold or how profitable it will be.”

Several of the pharmacists interviewed said they hadn’t ruled out signing on later if the program is successful.

The planting of cannabis in Uruguay has begun and it’s expected to be ready by late July, two government officials told The Associated Press. They also asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized by the government to comment. The officials said that having only 50 pharmacies enrolled might work in the government’s favor because it will be easier to control.

“We’re not ruling out using other networks or even vending machines in the future,” one official said, adding that marijuana will be sold by mid to late July.