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Marijuana Debate Rages in Chile

It’s not just Olympic athletes who live in fear of a drug test ruining their career.  Chilean politicians are being threatened with the revival of a bill that would remove politicians from public office if caught using illegal drugs.

The legislative hype began last month when Chilean Senator Fulvio Rossi admitted in an interview with Chilean newspaper La Tercera that he smokes marijuana “two or three times a month”—a revelation that shocked his colleagues and delighted a nation of thousands of cannabis users.

In spite of the threat of this new law, Rossi, a Socialist Party politician, has chosen to stand by his personal admission. What’s more, Rossi has used his confession as a launching pad for a public debate about the legal status of the drug in Chile.

On the Chilean Sunday television program Tolerancia Cero (“Zero Tolerance”), Rossi called for an “intelligent” discussion about the drug—saying that legalizing the “auto-cultivation of marijuana breaks the business of drug-trafficking,” is less harmful to one’s health than either alcohol or tobacco, and is an individual human right.

“This is private behavior that occurs in the privacy of the home and doesn’t offend public morality or harm others,” Senator Rossi, who also has a degree in medicine, said on the show. “The state can’t interfere. This is guaranteed in the Chilean constitution and in international treaties that Chile has signed.”

While opposition politicians have branded Rossi as “seriously irresponsible” for publicly admitting his consumption, other Chileans like Sebastián Binfa, Director of Revista Cáñamo (Hemp Magazine) and owner of a café in Santiago that sells cannabis-seed smoothies and other marijuana merchandise, called the act “courageous” and applauded Rossi’s attempt to “normalize the issue.”

Senator Rossi has been keen to point out that Chile “must adapt its legislation to social reality,” and has introduced a bill of his own that would decriminalize the home cultivation of marijuana for personal or therapeutic use. The proposal also suggested legalizing the transportation of small, regulated quantities of the drug. 

Social reality in Chile shows that marijuana is hugely popular. Per-capita consumption of marijuana in Chile is greater than in any other Latin American country. Every April in Santiago, thousands take part in the “Cultiva tus derechos” (“Cultivate your rights”) protest that aims to legalize the small-scale cultivation of marijuana for self-consumption as an alternative to drug trafficking—the same aims that Rossi’s bill intends to achieve.

Despite being highly illegal—the plant is categorized as “Group 1” in Chile’s drug laws alongside cocaine and heroin—4.2 percent of Chileans smoke marijuana, according to a 2010 survey conducted by SENDA, Chile’s National Service for the Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Consumption of Drugs and Alcohol. That figure was even higher—7.2 percent—before the commencement of Plan Cannabis in 2006, a counter-drug measure that has since led to the eradication of 96,919 marijuana plants in the first three months of 2012 alone.

Rossi’s bill was met with heavy criticism from opposition figures who say that marijuana is a gateway drug. Many politicians also expressed concern potential damage to Chile’s youth should the bill pass, despite Rossi being clear that his proposal would subject marijuana to the same age restrictions as alcohol and tobacco. However, a 2010 poll by Chile’s Commission of Narcotics Control found that 21 percent of Chilean youngsters had tried cannabis by the age of 13, showing that this is a real and pressing issue.

Currently the law in Chile allows for the personal consumption of cannabis alone at home—but penalizes smoking in groups, carrying small amounts of the drug in public places and growing plants at home. Penalties include fines, community service and mandatory rehabilitation treatment for minor offenses. If the quantities of marijuana are considered substantial enough to be involved in drug trafficking, offenders can be imprisoned for a minimum of five years.

Rossi’s campaign comes at a time of differing policy responses to drug trafficking in South America. Many in Chile believe in cracking down on marijuana usage but, conversely, Uruguay passed a law in June to allow state-controlled sales of marijuana.

Rossi’s bill also suggests moving marijuana policy out of the interior ministry’s jurisdiction and transferring it to that of the health ministry—in the hopes to frame marijuana as a health issue rather than a law enforcement issue. (Currently cannabis can be obtained for medicinal purposes.) Most profoundly, the proposed legislation has ignited debate about individual liberty versus the double standards and hypocrisy that many Chileans feel are demonstrated by the state.

Olivia Crellin is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is freelance journalist currently based in Santiago, Chile, who also works for Reuters. Her Twitter account is @OliviaCrellin.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Chile, Drugs, Marijuana

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