Ecuador's War on Drugs Might Be Ending Soon -- Here's Why

June 25th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

With new legislation under consideration, Ecuador is on its way to becoming the second country in the world, and the first in the Western Hemisphere, to decriminalize all drug use, from marijuana to heroin, GlobalPost reported recently. 

If passed, the bill would regulate the consumption of currently outlawed drugs of all stripes, corralling everything from alcohol and tobacco, to industrial solvents and cocaine under one law––though regulation for different substances would vary slightly. The proposed bill—the Organic Law of the Comprehensive Prevention of the Use of Drugs and Controlled Substances—has support from ruling party lawmakers belonging to Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa's Country Alliance, which holds 100 of the 137 seats in the county's national assembly. 

The proposal aims to boot cartel drug monopolies and approach drug offenses from a public health standpoint, not a criminal one. It is a marked departure from the "war on drugs" directives passed down from Washington D.C., and as one lawmaker says, it is a necessary shift in a region whose strict drug laws have birthed vastly overcrowded prisons without reducing drug trafficking, according to a 2010 study.

"Treating the drug phenomenon in a repressive way, as was done in the 1980s and 1990s when prison was the only destination for the drug consumer, is absurd," Carlos Velasco, president of the Commission of the Right to Health and bill author wrote on Facebook last month. 

Instead of locking people up, Velasco's bill would create a structure that fosters treatment and rehabilitation, while reducing the number prisoners sent to jail. It's just the latest step the country has taken to distance itself from the tough-on-drugs laws of recent decades. Over the years, president Correa has pardoned thousands of drug smugglers convicted of small-time possession, and last year, the criminal code was changed to enshrine reduced sentences for small drug crimes, setting free hundreds more and drawing a clear distinction between small and large-scale trafficking offenses. Many small-time traffickers are often poor, trying to scrounge money for essentials. Correa, whose father served time in the U.S. for trafficking, has called them victims of the drug trade, not traffickers. If the bill passes, it could mean big changes for those caught with small amounts of drugs in Ecuador, which is neatly situated between the world's leading producers of cocaine, Columbia and Peru, making it a major trafficking hub.

Ecuador would not be the first Latin American country to rethink its approach to drug enforcement, either, with Uruguay's historic nationalized market for growing, selling, and consuming marijuana approaching its second anniversary. Similar legislation decriminalizing drug use also went into effect in Portugal in 2001. While critics of decriminalization worry that edging off retribution or relaxing restrictive measures would only lead to rampant drug abuse, Fusion reports that if Ecuador followed Portugal's example, it could see positive changes across the board. Since Portugal's reforms were implemented in 2001, drug use dropped, as did drug-related deaths and HIV/AIDS rates. At the same time, rates of people receiving treatment went up. 

Related: These 5 Countries Have the Best Drug Laws in the World

Along with treatment and rehabilitative programs, Velasco's bill would likely impose small fines on drug users. It would also still mean jail time for drug dealers, though punishments would most likely be less harsh, GlobalPost reports