Uruguayan pharmacies began sales of legal marijuana to much fanfare. With lines stretching around the block, the pharmacies soon found their supplies were unable to meet booming demand for the newly available drug. With nearly a four-year rollout process following marijuana’s legalization, Uruguayan cannabis advocates were teeming with anticipation to make their first legal purchases. The first country to fully legalize the drug for recreational use, Uruguay’s 2013 decision to allow the legal growth, sale and use of recreational marijuana has been a bellwether to the growing block of countries looking to establish their own marijuana policies.
Enter the Patriot Act of the United States. A critical part of this law prohibits American banks from doing business with distributors of “controlled substances”: a category that includes marijuana. Soon after marijuana sales began in Uruguay, major American banks advised they would cut ties with Uruguayan banks providing services to distributors of legal marijuana. The threat of being shunted from the American banking system prompted Uruguayan banks to warn pharmacies that their bank accounts would be shut down if they dealt in the newly minted marijuana industry.