The path to legalizing marijuana in Chile
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The path to legalizing marijuana in Chile

Earlier this month, Chile’s Congressional Health Committee approved a bill that would modify the country’s current drug law, known as Law 20,000.

The bill would allow up to six marijuana plants for cultivation per household, medicinal marijuana use of with prior medical authorization and possession of up to 10 grams for personal consumption. The public health authorities, such as the Agricultural and Livestock Service (Servicio Agrícola Ganadero), would be in charge of overseeing consumption and cultivation of cannabis in the country.

If the bill is approved by legislators, Chile will become the second country in Latin America to legalize marijuana, after Uruguay did so last year.

Even though the bill is a milestone for activists and users everywhere, not everyone agrees with all the compromises it contains.

For Ana María Gazmuri, founder of the Daya Foundation, an organization dedicated to the development of medicinal marijuana, 10 grams of possession is too little for medicinal uses. And Claudio Venegas, co-founder and editorial director of Cáñamo, Latin America’s first magazine dedicated to cannabis, thinks the authorities should consider implementing dispensers or other similar measures.

A blow to drug trafficking?

Some people question whether the current Chilean drug enforcement system has reduced trafficking, when in fact the majority of drug-related arrests seem to be for low-level infractions like possession.

According to the Subsecretary of Crime Prevention (Subsecretaría de Prevención del Delito), 2014 saw a total of 51,357 arrests for infractions of Law 20,000. Out of those, 47 percent were for marijuana possession, 17 percent for consumption and just 27 percent on charges related to drug trafficking. Charges for possession and consumption made up more than 60 percent of total drug-related arrests.

Another thing that has activists alarmed is that, even though arrests have decreased compared to 2013, cannabis cultivation-related arrests increased over the same time period from 1,687 to 2,045, representing a 21 percent rise. Many say these statistics indicate that Chile’s current drug policy isn’t actually attacking drug trafficking; instead, it’s criminalizing consumption and individual cultivation.

On the other hand, even if cannabis cultivation and group cultivators were regulated, there would still be room for a big black market.

“Self-cultivation is necessary but not sufficient. We have to at least leave the door open to explore other mechanisms of supplying. Regulation of self cultivation and associations [which is already in the bill] does not cover the demand,” Venegas, the editor, told Latin Correspondent.

Chile’s cannabis culture

According to a government study on the marijuana market, a total of 30,921 pounds of cannabis were consumed in Chile in 2010. Even though that total represents a decrease from 2008 (34,907 pounds), the numbers have been fairly consistent since 2006 (36,707 pounds).

Cannabis culture has also grown the past years. In 2013, CultivaTV debuted an online channel dedicated to cannabis, providing information and educational resources regarding marijuana. Chile is also host to Expoweed, the largest Hempfest in Latin America, organized by Cáñamo magazine.

As civil society gradually gets more involved in the legalization movement, representatives from all over the political spectrum have started putting the debate on the table. The fact that politicians are willing to appear in Cáñamo and talk about marijuana is not by chance.

There has been a cultural shift in how Chilean society perceives marijuana, and Venegas is sure that civil society had everything to do with it.

“The biggest actor and primary motor of the whole process of recognition is without a doubt civil society, even though we have a lot of work ahead. In a certain way, Cáñamo also stands in this position,” Venegas said.

The healing plant

The medicinal uses of cannabis is a very important aspect of the debate on marijuana legalization.

Ana María Gazmuri is convinced that, even if legislation on drugs doesn’t change, “the revolution is already installed in civil society.” She sees patients– some of them only three months old — 24 hours a day, seven days a week  and she assures them that treatment with cannabis oil is effective and helps with the pain.

“People sometimes aren’t conscious of the enormous amount of people who live with chronic physical pain. It’s tremendously disabling and it can turn your life into a living hell. Here, we receive people with a lot of money and people that are very poor, and pain is pain, it doesn’t matter who its attacking,” Gazmuri said.

Thanks to the Daya Foundation, Chile now has the first legal cultivation of medicinal marijuana in Latin America. The project, carried out with the help of the municipality of La Florida, will supply about 200 patients. The next move, activists hope, is to implement the project in 20 other municipalities throughout the country.

The foundation’s main goal, however, is to assure that everyone – rich and poor – has complete knowledge and access to this therapeutic option. That’s why the treatment has a voluntary fee, and why the organization offers constant lessons on how to self-cultivate.

“Our mission is to encourage and protect the production of national medicinal cannabis, at a low cost and accessible to everyone in Chile. We know that the fangs of the international medicinal cannabis industry are looking at Chile and it’s ok, they can lend a service, but what’s behind it is profit. We want to become an alternative that really guarantees that this will not be another commercial product,” Gazmuri said.

Even though there is a lot of work to do regarding drug policies, Chile is slowly but surely becoming a medical marijuana pioneer, challenging politics and paving the way for a new social perspective on this plant.

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