The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform

Latin America

The recent trends in Latin American drug laws have been encouraging. Various decrees and reforms have been issued that give hope to those who believe in change towards a more rational drug policy.


President Otto Pérez Molina has launched our Latin American Chapter in Guatemala at a ceremony at the Presidential Palace, in the presence of senior members of the Government and Judiciary. The President also signed our Public Letter calling for an end to the War on Drugs (photo). He is the first incumbent Head of Government to sign the Public Letter, and joins an array of world figures including seven former Presidents, twelve Nobel Laureates and many others.

The Beckley Foundation has been asked to convene an international Board of Experts and to write reports which will i) analyse the impact of the current prohibitionist policies and ii) propose a sophisticated range of alternative policy solutions for Guatemala and the wider region, with a view to reducing violence and corruption and allowing resources to be re-allocated for health, development and education.

President Pérez Molina said, “It is evident that the strategy that has been followed in the fight against drug trafficking in the past 40 or 50 years has failed… with the support of the Beckley Foundation, the Government will be able to make decisions based genuinely on scientific studies… We want to leave behind the dichotomy between liberalisation and prohibitionism. We believe that there are third options, and that one of them is regulation.”

Click here for an article on the launch (in Spanish) from the Guatemalan media.

In 2012 at the America’s summit in Cartagena, President Molina of Guatemala successfully launched this dialogue, with leaders of the Organisation of American States agreeing to carry out a technical study on current drug policy that will be used to recommend alternatives. A remarkable display of unity among several Latin American leaders has become very apparent when it comes to the issue of reforming drug policy.

But it wasn’t just those in favour of policy alternatives doing the talking; president Obama and Canada’s prime minister Harper have also, in their own slow and disingenuous ways, begun to acknowledge reality. Although Obama has been clear that he opposes all forms of decriminalisation and legalisation, he admitted that drug reform was a debatable issue, stating: “I think it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places.” Perhaps even more telling was Harper, who conceded at a press conference that the drug war was “not working“.

In August 2009 Mexico enacted the ‘Narcomenudeo’ Decree, a law that has decriminalised possession of small quantities of certain drugs for personal use. These drugs include: marijuana (5g), opium (2g), diacetylmorphine/heroin (50mg), cocaine (500 mg), LSD (0.0015mg) and MDMA (40mg of powder, crystal or granules or 200mg of tablets) [1].  Also noteworthy in a region where indigenous cultures are seeking increased tolerance and understanding for their customs, psychoactive mushrooms and peyote are also decriminalised for their ceremonies and traditional/cultural usage. These quantities appear to be an attempt to distinguish between personal consumers/street dealers and large-scale traffickers. Those caught with amounts that exceed the stipulated quantities face severe penalties, including long prison sentences, with the law assuming them to be low-scale traffickers. Whilst the decree in itself can be understood as progress towards a rational and evidence-based drug policy, the fact that small-scale users are still criminalised and overwhelming the judicial and prison systems is still alarming.

Washington’s reaction, or lack thereof, to this decree is significant. In 2006, whilst the Mexican Congress had approved a similar bill to the Narcomenudeo, pressure from the Whitehouse forced former President Vicente Fox to prevent the bill from becoming law. US Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske was asked for his opinions whilst visiting Mexico and merely commented that he wanted to “wait and see” [2].



The August 2009 ‘Arriola’ ruling by the Supreme Court in Argentina rendered the possession of cannabis for private, personal use by adults no longer punishable by prison sentence or unconstitutional. Possession of marijuana had originally been decreed as warranting a sentence of between one month and two years. A number of prior cases have now been overturned and in 2011 the Federal Court underlined the unconstitutional nature of prosecuting personal consumption.

Venezuela declared in 1993 that the possession of cocaine (2g) and cannabis (20g) for personal use would be permitted and no longer punished by prison sentences, recommending treatment instead [3]. In September 2010, the National Assembly passed a third reform in anti-drug legislation that repeated the previous permissible quantities [4].

The more ‘liberal’ side of Latin America with regard to drug policy is led by Uruguay. Uruguayan law does not criminalise the possession or use of drugs for personal consumption (determined by judge’s discretion). In 2004 Law 17,835 was passed

To read more about the history of drug laws in Latin America click on the countries below.








[2]Ioan Grillo, ‘Mexico’s New Drug Law May Set an Example’, Time, 2009