Momentum for Marijuana Reform Builds in Latin America and the Caribbean
On Tuesday, Chile’s Lower House of Congress approved a bill that would decriminalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes. The bill passed 68-39 with five abstentions and marks a major shift in the country’s drug policies, which currently criminalize cultivation, sales, and transportation of marijuana with up to fifteen years in prison.
“It’s great to see yet another country in the Southern Cone move forward on marijuana reform,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Hopefully we’ll see Chile play a more active role in calling for drug policy reform on the international stage, especially in preparation for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on drugs in 2016.”
The bill is scheduled to be assessed by a health commission before going through a final vote in the Senate. If the new legislation passes, Chilean citizens will be allowed to grow six marijuana plants in their homes and carry up to 10 grams without facing legal repercussions. For a country that has ranked as being highly conservative concerning other social issues, this bill represents a groundbreaking opportunity to adopt sensible drug policies that take on a health approach to drug consumption rather than criminalizing innocent people as the result of a failed drug war. According to a recent survey by the Latin American Drug Policy Observatory, approval rates for therapeutic uses of marijuana have increased from 57% to 65% among Latin Americans, especially in Chile, Colombia, and Uruguay.
“Something that just a few years ago seemed so distant is now a reality,” said Eduardo Vergara, director of Chilean organization Asuntos del Sur. “Chile, one of the most conservative countries in the hemisphere, has joined the wave of states that are strengthening their public debates to allow for concrete reforms aimed at drug policies that are sensible, evidence-based, and, above all, that acknowledge that we can no longer continue with failed policies. Latin America continues on the path of reform, and the entry of new generations into spaces of power together with the work led by civil society for years, is showing the world that these necessary reforms are inevitable.”
In recent years, debate and political will for drug policy reform has gained unprecedented global momentum. In 2011, Kofi Annan, George Shultz, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to “break the taboo” on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs – and to “encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs,” especially marijuana.
Two years ago, Uruguay followed on the heels of Colorado and Washington State and became the first country to legally regulate marijuana for recreational purposes. Legislation on marijuana reform has been introduced in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Costa Rica in the past year. In April 2016, the United Nations General Assembly will host a special session on drugs, the largest high-level international drug policy event in years and the first of its kind since 1998.