- We suggest a route through the American continent moving from north to south, from Canada to Uruguay, from the United States to the tip of Chile, places that have taken important steps over the last five years in relation to their cannabis policies, for both medical and recreational use. We begin our journey filling up the tank with an unprecedented decision as we are dealing with a country that suffered violence deriving from drug trafficking in all of its brutality, Mexico. Now, it has announced that it is about to decriminalise the consumption of cannabis.
The movement to decriminalise cannabis on the American content has been gaining strength lately. The changes have been reflected in many of these countries at an unstoppable pace. Recently, the Canadian Health Minister, Jane Philpott made a speech at the headquarters of the United Nations, announcing the introduction of a measure that was already on the program with which the prime minister Justin Trudeau had put himself forward for the elections: decriminalising cannabis for all uses. The country is planning legislative changes that will lead to total legalisation of cannabis in 2017.
In this way, Canada will become the first G7 country (Germany, Canada, United States, France, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom) to reach this situation. The event would stand out more if it was an isolated case, however the promises of Trudeau during the campaign that are now going to be fulfilled, do not clash with the panorama presented on the American continent around the issue.
You simply need to cross the Canadian border and head into the United States, where decriminalisation movements for medical and recreational uses have obtained success in four states. In Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington the consumption of cannabis is completely legal. In the capital, Washington D.C., the use of cannabis for both purposes has also been completely legalised.
On the other hand, in almost 25 states cannabis has been decriminalised for medical purposes, and different types of laws which are more or less restrictive, are used to control recreational sale, possession and consumption. In 1996, California was the first state to legalise medical use. Throughout 2016, at least 20 other states have the possibility to regulate cannabis in one of its forms, Nevada, Arizona and Maine are the best positioned to do so before the end of the year.
Legalisation crosses the desert in Chihuahua
As if this normalising hurricane has gradually gained strength over time, it is now the turn of their neighbours, Mexico. In an unprecedented movement as this is a country that has suffered and suffers the violence derived from illegal business, cartels and the war against drugs, a fundamental change is being proposed to cannabis legislation, which has dominated the paradigm of public policies since the 70s in the region.
On 19 April, in an extraordinary session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, summoned at the request of Mexico itself, Colombia and Guatemala in order to deal with drug policy on a global level, the president Peña Nieto announced the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes and the decriminalisation of recreational consumption, by making it possible to possess up to 28 grams (an ounce) for personal use. This figure is quite a lot higher than that proposed by other neighbouring countries, such as the 20 grams in Colombia or the 8 in Peru, although it continues to be below the 40 of Uruguay, which heads the list.
This matter had not been the subject if any debate at the United Nations in 20 years. However, at the request of Mexico and Colombia, two of the world’s countries with the greatest production of cannabis as well as of coca leaf and opiates, it was clear that the policies used in the region to combat drug trafficking have not functioned and that they had only created more violence. Both nations put exerted pressure in order for this special session of the General Assembly of the United Nations (UNGASS) to be brought forward to 2018, when it was scheduled.
The fact is that south of the border with the United States, the drug cartels have prospered at the edge of the Mexican state, in a kind of more or less open war, and one that left the cold and brutal figure of 100,000 deaths and 26,000 people disappeared. The measure proposed by Peña Nieto, may seem insufficient, however it is a first step that will have to continue with the approval of additional measures that consider legalising growth so that the medical industry can be developed.
In that regard, the Supreme Court in Mexico set a favourable legal precedent las year, by allowing four cannabis growers to carry out their work, because they saw constitutional faults in the law that criminalised growing the plant. However, they were not allowed to sell the fruits of their harvest. The fact that the court ruled in favour of the activists speeded up the public debate that was crystallised in the declaration of Peña Nieto before the United Nations.
Trampled by elephants, victims of demand
The president of Guatemala Jimmy Morales also appeared before the United Nations. Unlike his predecessor, the former leader Otto Pérez Molina, a staunch defender of the regularisation of certain substances a current prisoner under corruption charges. Morales thinks that legalisation is a subject that needs to be debated more.
He offered the example of the story of two elephants fighting among one another, where one of them wants to take the drugs to one place, and the wants to avoid it reaching its destination. The president stated that Central America is the grass that is affected by the fight of the pachyderm, as Guatemala’s citizens are victims of the large cannabis and cocaine productions in South America, as a result of the enormous demand in countries such as the United States. “When two elephants fight, the grass always suffers the most”, said Jimmy Morales when referring to the battle between drug cartels and U.S. agencies.
However, something is happening in Guatemala. At the start of April, the political representative Álvaro Velázquez presented the Congress of the Republic with a proposal for a legal initiative to regulate the growing, production and consumption of cannabis. He believes that this could represent an option in the search for new routes in the battle against drug trafficking. The initiative must be presented in the plenary of representatives and it can then take two routes in order to be made into law. However, this marks a promising start, because prisons would be emptied of people are being held prisoners due to this matter, thus alleviating the population of prisoners in a country with a collapsed jail system.
Another State, in this case an associated one, that is also making big advances in terms of cannabis legislation is Puerto Rico. This is a pioneering decision in the region, since the beginning of 2016 the consumption and growth of cannabis for medical purposes has been regulated. The government of Puerto Rico, which is going through a tough crisis due to a lack of income and liquid assets, has already burdened the concession of professional licenses and company earnings, while it will charge Value Added Tax (VAT) at every stage of the value chain. It also establishes very precise regulations about the activity. For example, crops should have electronic surveillance, cameras, agents and other security measures.
If we go a little further into the Caribbean, we find that things are also changing in Jamaica. However difficult it is to believe, in Jamaica the growth and sale of cannabis has been punishable for law for more than one century (specifically, as a result of the 1913 Ganja Law). However, at the beginning of 2015, Jamaican politicians presented a draft bill that proposed decriminalising the possession of small amounts of cannabis for medical use, which would also give the green light for the development of an industry that takes advantage of its medical uses.
The authorities have already established a system of licenses for growing, selling and distributing cannabis for “medical, scientific and therapeutic purposes”. People that have this license will be able to possess up to 56 grams of cannabis, grow a plantation of up to five plants per premise and, something unprecedented, Rastafari will be able to use the plant legally for religious purposes for the first time in the history of the island. Rastafari cannabis growers, just like other small growers like them, have always had a lot of interest in developing this industry in a more structured and beneficial way. And their prayers have now been listened to.
The context in South America
Returning to the continental platform, and according to importance on the international scene, the steps taken by Colombia towards decriminalisation are decisive, as this is a country that wants to wipe out its drug trafficking past and become a legal exporter of cannabis for the entire world.
Within the framework of the truce and the peace negotiations with FARC, he president Juan Manuel Santos managed to approve a law in December 2015 that legalised the medical use of products derived from cannabis. Also, another law was admitted that regulated growth and licenses for growers that want to grow cannabis for the medical industry, without the need to have a state monopoly.
The change has meant a great step forward in a country that, like Mexico, has had to deal with forty years of military and prohibitionist policies and criminalisation. In the majority of Latin American countries, at least one in five people in prison have been imprisoned for drug crimes. Also, in several countries, this population is growing at higher rates than the general prison population.
Colombia offers a case study that reflects this situation, as the number of people jailed for crimes relating to drugs almost quadrupled over the last 14 years, rising from 6263 people in 2000 to 23141 in 2014. Now, the Supreme Court of Justice has ruled that is found with up to 20 recently cut cannabis plants or they are seized from there, it is possible to consider that they did not commit trafficking crimes or illegal growing.
There is also change in its neighbouring country Ecuador. The possession and use of a minimum amount of substances such as cannabis, cocaine and heroin had already been decriminalised in 2013. However, the president Rafael Correa did not want to broaden the legislation, arguing that, although the strategy used up until now had not worked in the country, there were more important problems.
However, at present, it seems that the fear to discuss this alternative faced with full-on battle against drug trafficking, has disappeared. Midway through March, a decree was presented through which the Technical Secretariat of Drugs (SETED) will authorise the sowing, growing and harvesting of plants that contain active principles of any narcotic and psychotropic substances. The permit will be given for non-pharmaceutical industrial purposes and can be granted to “natural or legal persons, both public and private”. At the moment, it will be necessary to wait until the national media and public opinion in Ecuador make their views clear about the matter, however it marks a significant change of direction.
Brazil, on the other hand, has arrived late to the decriminalising movement. It continues to be one of the most prohibitionist regions, with direct consequences on the increase in the population of prisoners and with a conservative and stigmatising stream of public opinion in relation to recreational consumption. However, this is changing little by little.
In March, following a long debate in Congress, a law was approved that allows the importation of medicines made from cannabis. And, although growing and possession remain a crime, there are currently two laws going through parliament in order to change the situation. One of them is a popular initiative backed by 20,000 signatures that requests that cannabis has similar regulations to those of tobacco and alcohol.
Light and shadow in the South Cone
In the case of Chile, the Andean country continued along the path opened up in the region by completely legalising cannabis used under a medical prescription. Also, it decriminalised home growing and legalised personal consumption. Thanks to these measures, there is no doubt that Chile will soon become the most important centre for medical cannabis research in South America.
At the moment, it already has the largest legal cannabis plantation in Latin America, named “Tierra Santa”, whose crops end up being used to create an experimental medicine that will initially be used by 4000 ill patients. A total of 6400 plants, involving 16 different strains of cannabis, were sown last November in an area of 6000 m2 located in Quinamávida, a small town 350 km to the south of Santiago. In order to get an idea of the size, the manicuring of the crop required more than 40 people.
The aim of this project is to create three big clinical studies that will be carried out the National Cancer Institute and two hospitals. The research has funding from 20 municipalities in the country and it is expected that to benefit patients with oncology problems, refractory epilepsy and chronic pain.
And in Peru? If medical use of cannabis is not regulated in Peru soon, Peruvian patients that need to relieve their pains with products deriving from cannabis, will have to make the trip to Chile in order to obtain them. This is because Chile is at a more advanced stage than Peru, Paraguay, Venezuela and Argentina, where only possession for personal use is not criminalised and the other laws remain highly restrictive.
The example of Uruguay for the world
On Christmas Eve in 2013, Uruguay regularised the production and sale of cannabis following an extensive debate lasting several years within the heart of Uruguayan society. José Mujica the president said a phrase that will long be remembered when he remarked that “the real problem is not cannabis, but drug trafficking". From that point on, the South American nation moved to the forefront of a movement that is crossing the continent.
Today, Uruguayan users have to register in a database and chose different consumption methods: home growing, belonging to a cannabis club or purchasing in pharmacies, a practise that was implemented at the beginning of this year. Figures for cannabis growers in Uruguay talk of 10,000 people that now grow at their homes. However, only 3,000 have registered in the system, in a country that, according to unofficial data, has 120,000 consumers.
In accordance with different information, the Uruguayan case is a pioneering experience that opened up the path for the entire continent. Especially in terms of the change to consumption uses. There is an increasing amount of users that are moving from the black market to home growing with all of the benefits that this involves in terms of quality for fans of cannabis, and in social terms in order to solve public order and health problems. From Uruguay to Canada, America is setting the tone for legalisation in the cannabis world.