As Latin American leaders voice increasing support for ‘alternative policies,’ Chile’s path remains uncertain.
The war on drugs received a good deal of press during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly last week, as the presidents of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia all voiced their support for alternative policies. According to the three heads of state, the status quo is not working.
This rhetoric seemed to be especially valid here in Chile. Although Chile is typically far from the central battlefields in the war on drugs, the anti-narcotics unit of the national police force was rocked by scandal recently as two police officers were arrested in the same week for drug-related crimes. In response, Gustavo González, general director of Chile’s national police force, vowed to restructure the drug control unit, admitting that it constituted a “weakness” in the organization.
In his own speech to the Assembly on Friday, Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno steered clear of the drug issue, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the relatively small role that drugs play in Chile. The matter has attracted significant interest among Chilean citizens, though. According to the Senate’s “Virtual senator” webpage, which allows users to hold a virtual vote on bills, drug reform is by far and away the most popular initiative in Congress.
The proposed bill is one that falls closely in line with some policies previously advocated by the presidents of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia — chiefly, and most controversially, the legalization of the consumption, possession and cultivation of marijuana.The Bill
The proposed reform was put forth relatively recently in July by liberal senators Fulvio Rossi and Ricardo Lagos Weber. If passed, the bill would legalize the cultivation of marijuana for personal and therapeutic use. The logic behind the bill is the same behind any legalization measure — by creating a legal channel for drug consumption, cartels will be robbed of business by those who choose to take advantage of that channel.
Drug policy expert Eduardo Vergara, one of the main minds behind the legislation, said the bill was born out of frustration with the current drug policy paradigm in Chile.
“After multilateral efforts, aggressive crop eradication plans, strategies to eliminate violent cartels, the US$100 billion spent annually on the ‘war on drugs’ and endless useless commitments, drug traffickers and cartels are more empowered than ever,” Vergara said in an interview with The Santiago Times. “Consumption and production are on the rise and yet we do not see any indication that the opposite will occur.”
While the Lagos/Rossi bill represents a strong push toward reform, it is one seldom seen in Chilean politics. Chile’s movement for reform is mainly run by ordinary people: the consumers, who maintain the backing of a number of intellectuals, academics and politicians.
“We have a very influential movement here in Chile mainly run by the cannabis consumers, but it has been extremely ineffective in terms of making concrete progress,” Vergara said. “It has not pushed for complete policy change.”
Every year, thousands of Chileans take part in the march “Cultiva tus derechos” or “Cultivate your rights” where they advocate changes to Chile’s marijuana policy. Protesters want to see policies like the Lagos/Rossi bill that will allow consumers to avoid the dangers of the illegal black market and permit them to grow their own cannabis for personal consumption.Crime: Consumers vs. Traffickers
This social movement, Vergara says, points to the flawed focus of Chile’s current drug policy.
“Simply viewing the figures, we find evidence that shows the drug law in Chile is used to persecute consumers and not traffickers,” he told The Santiago Times.
According to Vergara’s own research that cited government figures, from 2002 to 2011, the number of overall arrests for drug-related crimes rose from less than 10,000 to nearly 80,000. Arrests for drug trafficking, however, represented an increasingly small portion of these arrests, going from 75 percent to 17 percent of the total picture. In other words, while drug trafficking arrests nearly doubled over this period, drug arrests unrelated to trafficking increased 32 times faster.
Politicians who maintain that drugs must remain illegal believe that any attempt to legalize marijuana possession and cultivation will contradict the government’s natural goal to reduce drug usage. President Sebatían Piñera signed a drug prevention law in August
, and reiterated his administration’s opposition to decriminalization, while vowing to establish harsher penalties against traffickers and to increase rehabilitation centers in the country.Health issues
Father Nicolás Vial, head of the rehabilitation organization Fundación Paternitas, said he believes this to be a move in the right direction, and that the focus of drug policy must become a public health issue rather than one of economics and law enforcement.
“Drug policies need to take into account the fact that addiction is a deep-rooted problem, and consumption should be treated as an illness,” he told The Santiago Times.
“I don’t believe that it is a question of penalizing consumers or decriminalizing marijuana use, but instead of education and maturity,” he added. “The government has a responsibility to educate and prevent easy access to drugs.”
As the drug prevention law demonstrates, the Piñera administration has shown some dedication to establishing the educational measures that Father Vial refers to. SENDA, the government’s drug prevention and rehabilitation organization, also runs the “Chile Prevents” initiative to limit drug and alcohol consumption.
Still, reformists question the validity of SENDA, which is currently situated in the Interior Ministry. The Lagos/Rossi bill proposes folding SENDA into the Ministry of Health in an attempt to view policy implementation as a health issue, as opposed to a law enforcement one, so that it can concentrate on preventative and rehabilitative measures.
This move falls is in line with recommendations of many drug policy reformists the world over. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the U.S.-based Drug Policy Alliance and one of the world’s foremost critics of the global war on drugs, presents the separation of the two issues as the primary benefit of legalization.
The downside, according to SENDA and Fundación Paternitas, would be the increased consumption caused by a liberalized marijuana supply. SENDA’s national strategy also makes much of marijuana’s “gateway drug” status and its links to schizophrenia, psychotic problems and respiratory diseases. Nadelmann suggests that the potential effects are exaggerated.
“The opposition will argue against decriminalization and legal regulation, citing that marijuana is a drug that will see consumers move on to harder drugs,” he told The Santiago Times. “But the case of the Netherlands, for example, has discredited this, where, by separating the drug markets, officials were able to reduce the ‘gateway’ element of marijuana.”
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, liberalizing drug policies like those in the Netherlands have not led to a dramatic increase in consumption either. This does not mean legalization does not have an effect on consumption per se, but as reformists like Nadelmann and Vergara argue, a potential increase in consumption is far preferable to crime and corruption caused by the current system.A growing trend: Drug policies in Latin America
Chile is certainly not the first country in Latin America to consider the legalization of marijuana. Uruguay took an unprecedented step in July by announcing plans to pass a bill that would completely depenalize marijuana use, placing the state at the center of the legal sale and regulation of the substance.
One of the main reasons that President Mujica in Uruguay proposed state regulation of marijuana was the necessity to separate the drug markets, namely, the marijuana market from the more harmful “pasta base” market. “Pasta base,” or cocaine paste, is a highly addictive, cheaply produced substance that has seen increasing use in Uruguay in recent years.
In theory, the implementation in Uruguay should not be difficult, according to Nadelmann. Although Uruguay will be the world’s first state-controlled marijuana market, it could follow a model of regulation in the alcohol industry, he said. That’s not to say that Uruguay will not face some problems, however.
“There will be internal pressures from political and public opponents, and, perhaps more significantly, external pressures from neighboring countries, the U.S. and the U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board, which tend to be very conservative and reactionary,” Nadelman told The Santiago Times.Where next?
The effects of the war on drugs resonate in Latin America, as gang and drug-related violence continue to run rife. The fact that a number of current and former politicians from a range of nations seek to reopen the drug policy debate shows how prevalent the issue continues to be.
The security issue, that is, drug trafficking, is but one of the issues facing policy makers, who also have to consider the health risks and potential economic benefits involved in new legislation. Both sides seem to be coming together on treating addiction as an illness, but the next step is the most contentious. Both options seem to have their flaws: Prohibitionist policies can criminalize the addiction, while decriminalization can open up the possibility of an increased numbers of addicts.
The link between casual consumption of marijuana and its abuse, however, is being called more and more into question. Prior to the presentation of the bill, Sen. Rossi publicly admitted to his own marijuana consumption in an effort to publicly call the relationship into question. While his comments provoked a counterattack by conservative politicians, who in turn spearheaded a bill to prohibit marijuana use in Congress, his point has numbers behind it. SENDA’s latest report
on drug use among students, released in September, showed that while cannabis use increased from 15.1 to 19.5 percent from 2009 to 2011, “high-risk” consumption of the drug actually decreased from 22.3 to 15.3 percent.
The first step toward an alternative legislation of drug policy in Chile was taken back in 2003 when Sen. Nelson Ávila presented a bill to Congress calling for the legalization of cultivation and possession of cannabis. At the time the bill was not taken seriously and was quickly rejected. The stark contrast with the reception of Rossi and Lagos Weber’s bill nine years later shows how far the issue has progressed.
With a staunchly anti-legalization administration in power, it remains unlikely that Chile will see any revolutionary policy changes in the next few years, particuarly since the weight of an issue in Congress can be determined by the president for debate. In the meantime, eyes will surely be fixed on the situation in Uruguay and other countries moving toward legalization as reformist politicians begin to collect blueprints for future policy.
By Tom Murphy (email@example.com)
Copyright 2012 - The Santiago Times