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What Became of Latin America's Progressive Drug Reforms?

Countries have been experimenting with drug policy. A look at the results.
A rally to legalize marijuana in Santiago, Chile, in May 2018.
MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

This article is adapted from AQ's latest issue on reducing homicide in Latin America. 

Considering the drug trade’s role in fueling violence throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s worth examining the impact of recent drug policy changes. Most involve the decriminalization of marijuana for personal use or the legalization of medical marijuana — often in the form of oil derived from the cannabis plant that can be taken orally as medicine. Most reforms have been too minimal to affect crime. In some cases, bureaucracy and poor implementation may have thwarted the intended positive effects.

Argentina

The Senate passed a law approving medical marijuana in 2016. The government regulates the prescription and distribution of medical marijuana products, which must be imported since production is still illegal.

Impact: Patients say the implementation of the medicinal policy has largely failed. Cannabis oil is only accessible to patients with refractory epilepsy, and patients remain unauthorized to grow their own cannabis. Meanwhile, further drug liberalization seems unlikely under President Mauricio Macri, who has scaled up efforts against trafficking. Macri’s approach includes a controversial expansion of the armed forces’ role in stemming the drug trade.

Bolivia

Bolivian farmers have chewed coca leaves for generations to ward off altitude sickness and as a mild stimulant. However, coca cultivation was largely illegal until 2004, when the government began working with coca farmers to regulate cultivation, setting limits to grow the leaf in certain regions. In 2009, a new constitution backed by President Evo Morales, a former coca farmer, described it as part of the country’s cultural heritage. In 2017, a new law increased the legal limit of coca cultivation to approximately 55,000 acres from 30,000 acres, to incentivize more farmers to grow it legally.

Impact: The 2004 reform was followed by a fall in the share of Bolivia’s prisoners behind bars for drug-related convictions, from 41 percent in 2004 to under 20 percent in 2016. After the new constitution, coca cultivation also fell over time, reaching a peak of 76,600 acres in 2010 and then falling to just under 50,000 acres in 2015.

Brazil

A 2006 law depenalized, in theory, the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption, but it gave judges the authority to decide whether a suspect is a dealer or a consumer. Brazil’s federal medical agency also authorized the use of cannabis oil for medical purposes in 2015.

Impact: The ambiguity of the 2006 law correlated with a rise in Brazil’s prison population. In fact, the share of prisoners detained for drug-related charges increased from one in 10 to one in five between 2005 and 2009. Today, at 165 percent of its capacity, Brazil’s prison population of over 680,000 inmates is the highest in South America.

Chile

In 2015, then-President Michelle Bachelet signed a decree legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, and pharmacies began selling medical marijuana products in 2017. A 2005 law decriminalized marijuana consumption for personal use, but trafficking is still illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Impact: Arrests for drug-related crimes fell by nearly 50 percent between 2012 and 2017. Chile is also home to the largest medical cannabis farm in Latin America. Still, its cultivation remains largely restricted and activists, in turn, are calling for Congress to pass a bill that would allow Chileans to grow their own plants.

Colombia

In 2015, Congress approved a law legalizing marijuana for medical and scientific purposes. The state controls the market and grants licenses for private companies to manufacture and export marijuana products.

Impact: Medical marijuana products will likely be available starting in 2019. Some estimate that Colombia could capture as much as 20 percent of a global market that could be worth $40 billion a year.

Jamaica

A 2015 law decriminalized the limited possession of marijuana and legalized home cultivation for personal medicinal consumption and spiritual purposes.

Impact: Jamaica’s new minister of industry, commerce, agriculture and fisheries has made expanding the marijuana industry a priority. But activists are pushing for more affordable licensing fees that would allow the average person to take part in the marijuana business.

Mexico

In 2009, Mexico decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, including up to 5 grams of marijuana and 0.5 grams of cocaine. The government also shifted jurisdiction for small-scale dealing from the federal government to states. In 2016, Congress rejected a proposal by President Enrique Peña Nieto to allow possession of up to 28 grams of marijuana, but in 2017 did legalize the sale of medical marijuana products.

Impact: After the 2009 law, the population of Mexico’s state prisons rose 22 percent between 2010 and 2014, before falling in 2015 and 2016. The decriminalization law’s specific effect on crime is unclear, as it came into effect alongside the government’s militarized crackdown on organized crime, which exacerbated violence. Mexico’s homicide rate in 2017 hit a record high.

Paraguay

In December 2017, Congress legalized the growth of marijuana for medical purposes, after previously allowing the importation of cannabis oil earlier that year. The law created a state-sponsored system to import cannabis seeds for domestic oil production.

Impact: Like its neighbors with similar medical marijuana laws, Paraguay still prohibits personal cultivation, and patients complain about the law’s real effectiveness. Despite the bans on cultivation and recreational use, the country remains a key source of illegal marijuana trafficked into neighboring nations.

Peru

Lawmakers approved a law legalizing the production, use, sale, importation and study of cannabis oil to treat chronic and terminal illnesses in October 2017.

Impact: The government has drawn up a framework to regulate the law’s implementation, but a citizen consultation process is underway until August. While cannabis cultivation remains illegal, one expert estimated that Peru’s coastal areas could produce 2.5 harvests per year with an investment of at least $40,000 per acre.

Uruguay

In 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize the production, distribution and consumption of marijuana. Pharmacies began selling marijuana directly to consumers in 2017.

Impact: The state now controls over 50 percent of the fledgling marijuana market. In 2017, the Uruguayan state reported some $105,000 from marijuana sales and licensing fees. Drug-related crimes also dropped by 20 percent, although homicides as a whole are on the rise and hit a record high in the first quarter of 2018.

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Hernández-Tapia is an editor for AQ

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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