Prior to the introduction of the legalization bill, Senator Rossi publicly admitted his own use of marijuana in an attempt to show that use doesn’t equal abuse. But his comments prompted an attack by hysterical conservative opponents, who then spearheaded a bill to “prohibit marijuana use in Congress.”
The bill sprang from frustration with the current drug policy paradigm in Chile, according to drug policy expert Eduardo Vergara, one of the main forces behind the legislation.
“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 told the Santiago Times. “Consumption and production are on the rise and yet we do not see any indication that the opposite will occur.”
Chile’s movement for cannabis reform is mainly run by users, the Times reports, who have the backing 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.”
Thousands of Chileans take part every year in a march to protest the country’s marijuana laws. “Cultiva tus derechos” (“Cultivate your rights”) advocates changes to Chile’s pot laws; protesters want to see policies like the Lagos/Rossi bill that would allow consumers to avoid the pitfalls of the black market and permit them to grow their own cannabis.
One reason that marijuana consumers are the main force behind legalization is probably because they are paying the highest price for Chile’s regressive cannabis laws.
“Simply viewing the figures, we find evidence that shows drug law in Chile is used to persecute consumers and not traffickers,” Vergara said.
|Mark Teiwes/I Love Chile
|From left, Senator Ricardo Lagos Weber, drug policy expert Eduardo Vergara, and Richard Branson of Virgin Group participate in a forum on drug policy reform in Santiago, Chile
And the trend is in the wrong direction. Arrests for drug trafficking represent an increasingly small number of drug arrests, falling from 75 percent to just 17 percent of the totaln from 2002 to 2011. Drug trafficking arrests doubled during this period, but drug possession arrests — unrelated to trafficking — rose 32 times faster.
There’s an obstacle in the way of progress in Chilean drug policy: President Sebatían Piñera signed a “drug prevention law” in August, and restated his administration’s opposition to marijuana decriminalization. He vowed to establish even harsher penalties against traffickers, and to increase the number of drug rehab centers in the country.
Some Chilean conservatives have expressed fears that legalizing cannabis would result in increased usage, but Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said such potential effects are greatly exaggerated.
|Drug Policy Alliance
|Ethan Nadelmann, Drug Policy Alliance: Fears of potential effects of legalization are greatly 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,” Nadelmann 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.”
Chile seems to be following a general trend towards drug legalization in Latin America. Uruguay took an unprecedented step in July by announcing plans to completely remove all penalties for marijuana use, with legal sale and regulation of the substance by the government.
One of the main reasons cited by Uruguay’s President Mujica in the government controlling the sale of marijuana was a desire to separate the drug markets, namely the cannabis market from the far more harmful “pasta base” market. “Pasta base,” a cocaine paste, is highly addcitve, cheaply produced, and has seen increasing use in Uruguay in recent years.
The first step towards marijuana legalization in Chile was taken in 2003 by Sen. Nelson Ávila, who introduced a bill in Conress that would have legalized cultivation and possession of cannabis. At the time, the bill wasn’t 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,” reports the Santiago Times.