Ecuador is to toughen up penalties for drug possession after President Rafael Correa launched a broadside against "impunity" for microtraffickers "poisoning the population," rowing back on previous moves to liberalize the country's drug policy and further confusing an already muddled system. 

Ecuador's National Council for Narcotic and Psychotropic Substances (Consep) has announced a new scale to use to differentiate between drug users, microtraffickers and large scale traffickers when handing down prison sentences, reported El Universo.

The four level system saw changes for possession of all commonly used drugs, but the most significant were for heroin and cocaine; whereas previously possession of anything up to one gram of heroin and 50 grams of cocaine was considered "minimum," and essentially decriminalized, now such quantities are rated as "high" -- just one step below "large scale," and maximum prison sentences.

The changes come in the wake of speeches by President Correa denouncing the scourge of microtrafficking. Correa lamented that the light sentences for possession of small amounts under the previous scale amounted to virtual impunity for microtraffickers, especially as preventative detention does not apply to crimes with less than one year sentences, and so small-scale drug dealers were able to skip their trial hearings and continue to ply their trade.

"We're going to rectify this [law] and show zero tolerance for drugs," Correa told the press

Correa also called for control of the Consep to pass directly to the president's office, reported El Universo.

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InSight Crime Analysis

While there are indications that Ecuador's importance as a drug transit point has helped spur its domestic market, Correa's proposal appears less of an appropriate response to this challenge and more political bluster that will add to the nation's already confused drug policy. 

Ecuador is part of a group of Latin American countries which have taken steps towards treating drug abuse as a health problem and not a criminal issue. Under Correa, drug use has been decriminalized and the scale of possession was introduced in order to punish traffickers while sparing users. However, even before the current modifications, judges frequently chose to continue punishing users, a report (pdf) by the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law found. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

In addition, less than a year ago Ecuador released 500 "drug mules" or low-level traffickers in a move aimed to alleviate prison crowding while also recognizing the exploitation suffered by those working the lowest ends of the drug trade.  

Correa's proposal is a complete reversal of these progressive policies. While continuing to lock up low-level couriers, the new scale represents a de facto re-criminalization of drug use. Additionally, insisting on preventative detention for lower levels of drug possession will likely have a major negative impact on Ecuador's already crowded prisons