Add Ecuador to a growing list of countries pushing back against the U.S. "war on drugs."
A ruling party lawmaker recently introduced legislation that would make Ecuador the second country in the world — and the first in the Americas— to decriminalize the personal use of all drugs, from marijuana to cocaine to heroin.
The bill, presented by a lawmaker allied with President Rafael Correa, would regulate the consumption of over 100 substances and create a state agency to control the importation, exportation, production and cultivation of illegal drugs. Anyone interested in using or obtaining drugs would have to register with the agency.
If approved, the South American country would follow in the footsteps of Portugal, which in 2001 radically shifted its drug policy from prosecution to prevention and rehabilitation. It would also reflect the growing challenge from some Latin America countries to the decades-long U.S. approach to fighting drugs that has sought a military solution to the drug problem.
“Addressing the drug phenomenon in a repressive way, as it did in the 80s and 90s, where prison was the only place for a drug consumer, is absurd,” said bill sponsor Carlos Velasco, the head of Ecuador’s congressional Commission of the Right to Health. “The traditional way of regulating and fighting drugs, emphasizing criminalization … can’t be sustained in Ecuador.”
Across Latin America, many governments are exploring alternatives. Two years ago, Uruguay became the first country in the region to legalize marijuana.
In Ecuador, the basic thinking behind the proposed policy shift is to treat drug abuse as a public health issue, not a crime. Under the proposed bill, drug users would face small fines and be forced to hand over their stash, but there would be no more lengthy prison sentences.
The move would be a radical pivot for a country with some of the harshest drug laws in Latin America. Current legislation doesn’t distinguish between small-scale offenders and major drug lords. Consequently, the country’s prisons are overflowing, with some estimates putting Ecuador’s jail population at nearly double the capacity.
The situation has forced the government's hand. Last year, President Correa began releasing hundreds of drug “mules” from jail, arguing that people who transport small amounts of drugs are victims of the drug trade, not traffickers.
The issue was partly personal for Correa. He has said publicly that when he was a child, his father was jailed in the United States for three years for drug smuggling.
“I lived through this and these people are not delinquents,” the president has said. “They are single mothers or unemployed people who are desperate to feed their families.
Correa says he doesn't justify what he father did, "but he was unemployed.”
Ecuador’s proposed legislation is similar to the approach taken by Portugal, according to Lisa Sanchez, a project coordinator at Transform, a group that advocates for looser anti-drug laws. If similar tactics yield similar results in Ecuador, don't expect to see a country overrun by drug addicts.
In Portugal, a person who is found possessing less than a 10-day supply of drugs is sent to a Dissuasion of Drug Addiction commission, which can recommend treatment or issue a minor fine.
"While critics of the law warned that drug use would swell, it has not risen," Joao Castel-Branco Goulao, Portugal's national drug coordinator, wrote last year in the New York Times.
Here’s a look at some key statistics from Transform about drug use in Portugal 14 years after it decriminalized the use of illicit drugs: