Latin America in search for medical cannabis policies

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Argentinian cannabis researcher Diego Bertone knows first-hand about the confusion over South American drug policy, having recently emerged from jail after a week’s incarceration.

“It’s sad that in the 21st century in my country that growers can be pursued on criminal charges,” said Bertone, who has studied both medical marijuana and industrial hemp for the last decade.

Latin American governments are gradually moving to decriminalize marijuana and other soft drugs. Uruguay, for example, has regulated its cannabis and hemp markets from production to distribution to retail, with human rights at the center of the country’s strategy.

And in December Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos decreed medical marijuana and hemp legal and set down regulations in his country. The decree made it legal to grow, process, import and export cannabis and its derivatives for medical and scientific purposes. “This decree places Colombia in the group of countries that are at the forefront . . . in the use of natural resources to fight disease,” he said at the time.

Region’s laws advance slowly

But advances across the broader region are slow, and activists in Argentina and other Latin American countries say they have seen little progress on cannabis laws — which proponents see as a key weapon to fight the region’s illicit drug trade.

“In Argentina, it’s getting even tougher on people who grow,” said Bertone, who had his house raided by anti-narcotics officers in early February. The police seized dried cannabis buds as well as cannabis plants and seeds along with industrial hemp seeds, Bertone said. A graduate in agronomic engineering from the National University of Córdoba, Bertone, who studies and promotes both medical cannabis and industrial hemp in Argentina, awaits a court date.

Cannabis is illegal but decriminalized for personal recreational use in Argentina, while medical marijuana is generally accepted but not governed by legislation. Lawmakers continue to debate drug laws, with proposals ranging from further decriminalization to a complete legal overhaul, but local activists say they’re pessimistic about any significant changes soon.

UNGASS preparations criticized

Meanwhile, three of the region’s former presidents last week urged the upcoming United Nations’ 2016 Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) to admit the “unmitigated disaster” of the “war on drugs.”

“The only way to wrest control of the drug trade from organized crime, reduce violence and curb corruption is for governments to control and regulate drugs,” they wrote in an editorial carried by the Los Angeles Times March 11 that was sharply critical of preparations for next month’s UNGASS session.

“Unfortunately, this historic event — the first of its kind in 18 years — appears to be foundering even before it gets off the ground. What was supposed to be an open, honest and data-driven debate about drug policies has turned into a narrowly conceived closed-door affair,” the authors wrote.

The editorial, by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil; Cesar Gaviria, former president of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico, said input from key UN agencies working on health, gender, human rights and development was excluded from preparatory meetings for the UN drug session, set for Vienna.

“Most of these commission-led negotiations have been neither transparent nor inclusive,” the former presidents wrote.

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