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Ecuador Breaks the Ice on Drug Legalization in Landmark Bill

By: Rebeca Morla - @RebecaMorla - Apr 14, 2015, 8:30 am

EspañolA new bill in Ecuador seeks to change the public-policy paradigm on drug use in the country. On Thursday, April 9, legislators held a historic first debate of the Organic Law on Comprehensive Drug Prevention in the National Assembly.

The first debate of the Law on Comprehensive Drug Prevention was held on Thursday in the Ecuadorian National Assembly. (Asamblea Nacional)
The first debate on a landmark drug regularization bill was held in the National Assembly on Thursday. (Asamblea Nacional)

The project, promoted by the ruling party PAIS Alliance, was introduced to the chamber by Carlos Velasco, head of the Commission of the Right to Health.

The bill aims for “comprehensive drug prevention, by establishing a legal and institutional framework to address drug use, and the regulation of the substances that are subject to control.”

It stipulates over 100 substances that would be “controlled,” including alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, illegal drugs, and other industrial substances such as solvents which are also used as drugs.

In perhaps the most landmark provisions, however, the 26-article document proposes the creation of a Technical Secretariat of Drugs, under the control of the president, to “regulate and control the activities related to the import, export, cultivation, production, marketing, distribution, transportation, and use,” of the aforementioned substances.

Those interested in handling or using the substances provided by the bill would have to register with the agency, although domestic cultivation or manufacture would only be allowed for purposes of “research, experimentation, or training.”

The penalties for non-compliance with the provisions of the document vary between fines or forfeiture of the substances. However, the bill as it stands would be a major change to the existing Law of Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which punishes both cultivation and sale with between 12 and 16 years in prison.

Velasco emphasized that Ecuadorian legislation on the matter passed in the 1980s designed to criminalize consumption had tried and failed to make the problem invisible.

By contrast, the legislator hailed the 2008 Constitution, which defines drug use as a public health issue, paving the way for a dramatic shift in public policy.

In this vein, Velasco further wrote on his Facebook page that it is “absurd” to address the “drug phenomenon” in a repressive manner, “as was done in the 80s and 90s, where prison was the only place for a drug consumer.”

“It’s necessary to establish a comprehensive system of prevention of drug use,” stretching “from the educational phase to rehabilitation and reintegration,” he added.

Opposition Spark Up Debate

Nevertheless, the PAIS proposals failed to convince many legislators. Ramiro Aguilar, an independent member of the Assembly, delivered fierce criticism of the bill, which he branded “preposterous” and poorly prepared.

Aguilar, despite admitting being personally in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana, identified glaring gaps in the information provided by the bill, and the failure to provide key definitions of concepts or define the amounts under discussion.

“If the intention of this parliament is to legalize the sale of marijuana, let’s do it right,” he said, arguing that the decision should be made directly by the people in a referendum.

Opposition legislator María Cristina Kronfle meanwhile argued that the bill is too liberal, and would in fact promote the use and sale of drugs.

Moreover, she complained that the bill, introduced in December 2014, has been treated with greater urgency than other legislative proposals presented before it.

PAIS Assemblywoman María Alejandra Vicuña rose to the defense of the bill, drawing a dichotomy between a prohibitionist model which supports the war on drugs, and the “model of risk and harm reduction, which is based on the premise that it is impossible to completely eliminate drug use.”

Vicuña asserted that the latter is the most effective way to address the “social phenomenon of drugs,” a problem for Ecuadorian society “that must be treated from a health perspective.”

After three hours of full session, the debate in the National Assembly was suspended, but is expected to be resumed in the coming weeks.

Edited by Laurie Blair.

Rebeca Morla Rebeca Morla

Based in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Rebeca Morla works as an editorial assistant with the PanAm Post. She is a political scientist and an Executive Board member of EsLibertad. Follow @RebecaMorla.