In the past three years, Latin America has begun to transform itself from an illegal narco-economy to a legal drug economy, beginning with medical and recreational cannabis programs developing across several countries. Beginning with Uruguay in 2012, the world has been watching the dominoes fall across Latin America, wondering which countries would be next to liberate the leaf. The following is a list of the six countries leading the charge toward legalization.
In 2012, Uruguayan President José Mujica’s center-left Broad Front party introduced a measure to legalize recreational cannabis and give the government control over production and distribution. It took over a year, but on Dec. 9, 2013, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize whole-plant adult-use cannabis. Uruguay opted to use a “pharmacy legalization” model, run by the government but distributed through private pharmacies, and after much delay, they are now offering three strains starting this year, each with a different CBD-to-THC ratio. Though cannabis is just beginning to be sold in Uruguayan pharmacies, it has been legal to grow at home since 2014, with over 3,000 people registered to grow up to six plants. In order to combat illegal diversion of legal state cannabis, all legal plants must be tagged with radio frequency chips and have special markers added to their genetic code (which theoretically will not impact the effects of the plants, despite being a form of genetic modification).
In April 2014, the mother of 6-year-old Anny Fischer sued ANVISA (Brazil’s FDA) for access to CBD oil. It took ANVISA just three days to rule that it would be “inhumane” to deny Anny access to potentially life-saving CBD. Soon dozens of other families followed Fischer’s lead and now it isn’t just legal for patients in Brazil to import it, the government is actually subsidizing the oil through their healthcare system. While this is not legalization at the level of Uruguay, it is a victory for the patients who can now legally use CBD oil in Brazil.
In August 2014, Marvin Atencio, a Costa Rican politician in the Citizen Action Party, proposed a bill to legalize medical cannabis in his country, but there has been no movement on it for two years. Gerald Murray, the director of the Costa Rican Medical Cannabis Movement, recently spoke out in favor of even broader access to medical cannabis. And the U.S. Costa Rican Ambassador Stafford Fitzgerald Haney told the Tico Times, “The Costa Ricans’ decision of what they want to do with their own laws is up to Costa Rica… That’s going to be a local issue just as it is in the states.” In January 2016, a Costa Rican court relied on an individual liberties defense to clear someone of charges who had been accused of growing and trafficking; this case could potentially lead to decriminalization and medical access.
While Uruguay was the first Latin American country to legalize recreational cannabis, Chile was the first to allow access to medical cannabis, though when the program first began it was very limited. In September 2014, the Daya Foundation received state approval to begin growing 850 plants in the La Florida region of Chile’s capital city, Santiago, to make cannabis oil to treat 200 patients. By December 2015, the trial run had proven so successful that the Chilean president signed a decree removing it from their hard drug list and opened the gates for Daya to begin Latin America’s largest medical cannabis grow, with nearly 7,000 plants to make medicine for 4,000 patients. At the same time, a bill is working its way through the Chilean congress to decriminalize the personal use of cannabis.
While Chile may be home to the largest legal farm, Mexico still retains the crown for the largest grow ever at 300 acres, all illegally cartel grown. Mexico has long been debating cannabis legalization as a means to reduce the profits and violence of cartels, but a couple of recent court decisions have led to a new round of debates which may legalize cannabis, not just for medical but for recreational purposes as well. The first case allowed an 8-year-old girl named Grace to legally use CBD-oil to treat her seizures and opened the doors to medical cannabis in Mexico. Based on that decision, an 11-year-old girl was able to coattail that ruling to join Grace as Mexico’s second medical cannabis patient. The latter case dealt with recreational access to cannabis, where the non-profit group SMART won an impressive victory and the right to legally grow and use cannabis; the Mexican Supreme Court went as far as declaring the right to use cannabis a fundamental human right. While this is not yet legalization, the Supreme Court has said that if they rule the same on five similar petitions that would mean legalization.
In December 2015, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos legalized medical cannabis by a presidential decree. While it was already legal to grow up to 20 plants for personal consumption, this new law represents a major step forward in allowing an estimated 400,000 patients access to medical cannabis.
Also in December 2015, Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled that possession of drugs for personal use is not a crime, saying that drug addicts should have “therapeutic medical treatment instead of a punishment.” The black market was quick to respond, and it seems that cannabis growing has come to replace coca farming in Colombia’s eastern plains.
All signs point to the governments of Latin America continuing to accept marijuana as a legitimate, healing plant. The next UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), which was scheduled to happen in 2019, was moved up to 2016 after the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico stressed to the UN the importance of dealing with the issue sooner rather than later. That session took place this month.
Correction: Due to an editing error in issue 20 the president of Mexico was incorrectly attributed. The president of Mexico is Enrique Peña Nieto.