With its proposed changes to Ley 20.000 (Law 20,000), Chile joins a growing list of Latin American countries decriminalizing marijuana. The initiative, which would grant Chileans the right to possess up to 10 grams of cannabis and grow up to six marijuana plants at a time, was passed in Chile’s Chamber of Deputies on July 7 with 68 voting in favor and 39 against. The bill must first be adjusted by a health commission and then passed by the Senate before it officially becomes law, but strong support for cannabis legalization in the country illustrates that legalizing marijuana use appears to be the new norm in the Western Hemisphere and, once again, that the War on Drugs has been a failed campaign.
Support for Legalization
The future of legalization is most apparent in the opinion of Latin American young adults on the War on Drugs. In a 2012 poll of 18 to 34-year-olds in the region by Asuntos del Sur (Southern Affairs), 79 percent of Chileans “voiced strong approval” for legalization, 52 percent disapproved of government campaigns attempting to reduce drug use, and 54 percent did not support current government policies on drugs.
In Chilean society at large, those in favor of legalizing the use and cultivation of pot are also in the majority. Fifty percent of Chileans are in favor while 45 percent are against, according to a 2014 poll carried out by Cadem, a Chilean market and public opinion investigation company. When polls address the legalization of medical marijuana, this figure skyrockets to 86 percent in favor. These numbers are especially significant when one considers that Chile is one of the more socially conservative countries in South America and indicate that support for legalization is becoming a mainstream opinion, rather than a progressive pipe dream.
So far, it is legal to smoke marijuana with varying restrictions in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. After creating a legal marijuana market in 2013, Uruguay in particular has been deemed a “trailblazer” on this issue. However, there have been delays in implementing the government-regulated system. In March, the Spanish newspaper El País reported that cultivating the drug had become legal in Uruguay and that an estimated 2,000 people had enrolled in the official register, a slower registration rate than originally expected. One factor slowing implementation of the law in Uruguay is concern surrounding the safety of marijuana on the part of some pharmacy chains in the country.
Responding to Questions of Health and Safety
In Chile, safety has also become a central argument against marijuana decriminalization. In the days after the measure passed in Chile’s Chamber of Deputies, the right-leaning newspaper La Tercera published article after article about safety concerns related to decriminalizing the drug. In one article published on July 11 titled, “Doctors Warn [the Public] About the Risks of Consuming Marijuana,” President of the Chilean Society of Pediatrics Luis Felipe González was quoted saying, “In the framework of the publication of the National Study of the Consumption of Drugs and the debate underway about the legislative change regarding the use and production of cannabis, the Medical Societies of Chile are taking note of our concerns about the significant increase of marijuana consumption, especially in young people and the harm that it brings them and society.” He went on to say that the initiative proposed by Congress is counterproductive, since it will only add to these risks.
The following day, the same publication posted an article in which Jo McGuire, director of the U.S. based Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, updated the newspaper on the current status of marijuana legalization in Colorado and suggested that Chile is not ready for decriminalization. McGuire somberly declared, “We are still waiting to see something positive come out of the decriminalization of marijuana” in Colorado. She asserted that the number of people dying in car accidents who tested positive for marijuana use had increased after the state legalized medical marijuana in 2001. She also pointed out that marijuana causes addiction in one out of six young people and one in 10 adults and that the recent legalization has caused an increase in the number of marijuana users in the state.
McGuire is correct in saying that marijuana use has increased since it was legalized for recreational purposes in 2012 via Colorado Amendment 64. One in every eight Coloradans over the age of 12 say they have used marijuana in the last month, making it the state with the second highest percentage of regular cannabis users, after Rhode Island. However, the increased usage is not as negative as McGuire makes it out to be, and her comments regarding traffic fatalities are misleading.
The medical marijuana industry in Colorado is now a tightly regulated retail industry, and the sales from this industry are taxed by the Colorado Department of Revenue. The majority of the funds coming from this tax, which in October 2014 totaled more than $40 million USD, go toward marijuana use prevention programs for youth and general mental health programs. According to Art Way of the Drug Policy Alliance, this system is already having positive effects: A year after legalization, there was actually a decline in the number of young people using marijuana in the state.
McGuire’s other claim that more people are dying in car accidents due to marijuana use is deceptive since the only way to test for marijuana in someone’s system is through the presence of marijuana metabolites, which can linger in the body for days or weeks after first using the drug. Therefore, this test is not entirely accurate in that it cannot determine whether the person in question has actually smoked that day or not and, therefore, does not prove that marijuana was the cause of these accidents. In fact, roadway fatalities are at near-historic lows in Colorado and have actually decreased since marijuana was legalized.
Taken in broader context, the situation in Colorado proves that cannabis use has not created the treacherous atmosphere that McGuire and other critics insist it generates. Although it is important to be cautious about this kind of psychoactive substance, the consumption of cannabis is actually less damaging to an adolescent’s health than the consumption of alcohol, according to Ibán Rementería, a member of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Central University of Chile. The legal drinking age is 18 in Chile, and in 2014 the World Health Organization found that Chile had the highest rate of alcohol consumption per capita in Latin America. If alcohol is a normalized part of Chilean society and marijuana legalization does not appear to have the chaotic implications that opponents assert, then there are few negative arguments left regarding cannabis decriminalization. In fact, the consequences of not decriminalizing this drug are even more dangerous.
Why Chile Should Pass This Measure
As in the case of Colorado, one of the benefits of decriminalization is the ability to enact prevention programs that demystify cannabis smoking and provide for education rather than incarceration. As Rementería emphasizes, such programs make marijuana use safer, since they offer alternatives to the drug for young users or suggest how to reduce sanitary risk. Also, if marijuana were decriminalized, the government would be able to regulate the sanitary quality of the drug, a crucial benefit, since, “the majority of diseases and deaths associated with its consumption are due to the toxicity of its additives.”
A third benefit of decriminalization is perhaps the most significant. Rementería asserts that it “distances users from illicit markets with their risk of violence, criminalization, and fraud.” Chile certainly does not suffer from the same violence linked to the drug trade that Central America or Mexico experiences; from 2007 to 2012, 48,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in Mexico alone. By contrast, Chile, with a rate of 3.1 per 100,000 habitants, has the lowest number of homicides of any country in Latin America.
At the same time, Chile incarcerates a high percentage of its population for drug-related offenses. Between 1993 and 2008, Chile’s imprisoned population grew by 238 percent, and Chile’s rate of detainees per 100,000 habitants in 2008 was 305, well above the global average incarceration rate (145) and that of South America overall (154). Among crimes that result in imprisonment, drug trafficking results in the third highest rate while the “Ley 20.000 microtrafficking control” results in the fifth highest rate. Regarding gender differences in jail sentencing, the majority of female inmates are imprisoned due to drug trafficking. If the proposed change to Ley 20.000 is passed, Chile could make great strides in reducing its prison population, while helping to prevent some of the thousands of deaths that plague its neighbors throughout the Hemisphere. Although Chile is not in the thick of the drug trade, its proposed actions could well provide a model for curbing the crippling violence and hardship the illegal drug trade has perpetuated.
Mexico and Portugal as Models
While decriminalizing marijuana is a step in the right direction, ultimately the only way to completely break the cycle of drug violence that pervades the Western Hemisphere is to eliminate illegal markets for all drugs. Consumers in the United States alone spend over $100 billion USD on illicit drugs each year, with $41 billion USD being spent on marijuana. This leaves about $59 billion dollars being spent on drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines in the United States alone, yet campaigns to decriminalize these drugs have gained very little traction in the Hemisphere when compared to marijuana. According to José Miguel Insulza, former secretary general of the Organization of the American States and Chilean by birth, “Marijuana is a special case. It is the most consumed by far and probably the least damaging from a health point of view.”
However, there are signs that the social stigma around decriminalizing hard drugs is starting to change. Since 2009, individuals in Mexico can no longer be prosecuted for possessing small amounts of pot, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs for personal use. The government only takes note of incidents of drug possession and provides the users with information regarding treatment options.
Portugal is widely seen as the biggest success story in drug decriminalization. Since 2001, possession and use of small quantities of any kind of drug have been treated as a public health issue. As in Mexico, anyone found with a drug is referred to a treatment program instead of being put in jail. The results have been astounding. Drug use is down, especially among young adults, and new HIV cases have plummeted due to health programs that have been instituted in the country. In addition, Portugal touts the second lowest rate of drug overdose deaths per 1 million people in the European Union. While Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post points out that there could be other factors at work here in achieving these positive results, he also argues that Portugal’s example certainly weighs against the idea of keeping all drugs illegal.
A Call to Action
The favorable results in countries and states, such as Portugal and Colorado, that have successfully begun to decriminalize marijuana and other drugs will be key to influencing the final decision on whether to regularize the use of cannabis in Chile. As can be seen in the articles written on this story by La Tercera, the main opponents of this step have distorted facts about legalization in Colorado and have used health and safety statistics that do not accurately reflect what decriminalization could mean in a society. Therefore, those in favor of this measure must actively promote the benefits of decriminalization while warning of the dangers of unsanitary practices and the drug violence that will continue if action is not taken. Although allowing the use of marijuana in one country will not solve all of the problems associated with the War on Drugs, if Chile does pass the proposed changes to Ley 20.000, it could advance the movement of Latin American countries and states in the United States taking action to end the status quo.