As OAS Debates Drug Policy, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay Move ahead on Legislation

By Rachel Glickhouse

From June 4 to 6, foreign ministers from across the hemisphere discuss steps to combat narcotics, while three Latin America countries consider drug legislation.

Foreign ministers from across the Americas debate drug decriminalization this week, meeting in Antigua, Guatemala from June 4 to 6. The 43rd General Assembly (GA) of the Organization of American States (OAS), focuses on hemispheric drug policy and comes two weeks after the release of a major OAS drug report. Though officials may not ratify the report, a hemispheric discussion on the topic may prove significant, especially as Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay debate changes to national drug policies.

The drug report, which serves as the foundation for the Assembly’s conversation, makes several key recommendations. It endorses decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, and treating drug addiction as a public health issue. It also suggests coordinating drug policies throughout the Americas, identifying improved judicial and police systems, and economic development as a path to better security. Ahead of the OAS meeting, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina called the discussion “a triumph” over a taboo. “Now it’s something that can be debated frankly,” he said. Nic Wirtz writes for the Americas Quarterly blog that given growing support by other leaders to change drug policy, “there is a unique window of opportunity to shift policy.” But the impact of the document on policy remains unclear; only a slim chance exists that the report will be ratified or that an agreement will be reached this week.

With few immediate prospects for a hemispheric consensus on drug policy, change seems more likely on the legislative level of individual countries.

  • On one end of the spectrum, Uruguay’s Congress is contemplating legalizing and regulating marijuana sales and production (the drug is already legal for personal use). In August 2012, President José Mujica sent a bill to legislators that would put the government in charge of sales and establishing a database of marijuana buyers. However, following a public opinion poll showing that around two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose the bill, Mujica said in December that society wasn’t ready for state control of marijuana sales. Taking this into account, parliamentarians from the ruling party reached an agreement on a modified text this week. The bill does not include government-run production or sales; private companies will be licensed to grow and sell the drug. The text does, however, allow for personal marijuana cultivation. Legislators added more language around education and drug rehabilitation, as well as penalties for those who drive after consuming marijuana. The Chamber of Deputies will debate the bill this month, and if approved, the legislation moves to the Senate in September. The opposition says it will start a campaign to hold a referendum on marijuana legalization, should the bill advance.
  • Chile, too, is considering a bill to decriminalize marijuana. Introduced last August in the Senate, the legislation would legalize marijuana cultivation for personal and medical use. It would also decriminalize the possession of small amounts of the drug. Chile does not criminalize the use of narcotics, but does have penalties for drug possession. One of the authors of the bill, Socialist Party Senator Fulvio Rossi, said that “when you allow for personal cultivation, you’re attacking illegal sales and narcotrafficking, because you reduce the drug trafficker’s market.” In May, Health Minister Jaime Mañalich said he supported the decriminalization of certain drugs, including marijuana. The bill is currently under consideration in the Senate.
  • Meanwhile, Brazil’s Congress is considering a bill that increases penalties for drug trafficking. The legislation would raise the minimum penalty for heads of drug trafficking organizations from five to eight years in prison. It would allow for drug addicts to be brought to rehabilitation facilities against their wishes; a family member, legal representative, or public health worker would be allowed to give consent. The bill also calls for the creation of a national policy to combat drug trafficking on Brazil’s borders. Approved by the Chamber of Deputies on May 28, the legislation now heads to the Senate for consideration.