Guatemala is examining the possibility of taxing legalized drug crop cultivation, de-penalizing low level drug crimes and offering amnesty to people convicted of small scale drug possession and sale, as it moves further and further away from the US-led prohibition paradigm.
In an interview with Reuters, Guatemala’s Interior Minister, Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, said the government was considering legalizing poppy and marijuana production, and using the resultant tax revenues to fund drug prevention programs and social spending.
Lopez admitted that enforcing current laws was impracticable and that poppy eradication programs only destroyed around 10 percent of the total crop.
“If we followed the letter of the law, we would have to send the inhabitants of three municipalities to prison and that is impossible,” he said.
The minister also discussed the possibility of ending criminal punishments for minor drug crimes but ruled out a blanket decriminalization of the drug trade.
“We’re not talking about the legalization of the drugs trade, of production or the use of drugs,” he said. “We are talking about changes to a system that over the last 40 years has proven to be inefficient.”
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Guatemala has been at the forefront of calls to reform drug policy since President Otto Perez assumed office in 2012. In April, Perez told Reuters the government had begun to study alternatives to prohibition and expected to produce a proposal by the end of 2014.
The country is one of the three main poppy producers in the region, alongside Mexico and Colombia, and has been waging a fiercely resisted eradication program to tackle what are believed to be record levels of production. As Lopez pointed out, complete eradication of the crop is all but impossible, and enforcing the law involves the criminalization of entire rural communities with few economic alternatives.
Plans for legalizing production would likely focus on using the crop for medical purposes, following a path of government-regulated opium farms seen in countries such as lndia, Turkey, and Australia. The main concerns over such production is whether the legal market is large enough to absorb the entire crop, and whether any excess would still be diverted into the illegal heroin market, where it is processed and trafficked by Mexican groups.
Legalizing marijuana production could prove more problematic, as it is predominantly produced in the country for domestic consumption, so would have to be accompanied by a regulative framework for legal use. As shown by the current legalization process in Uruguay, this is a complex undertaking.
Any move towards legalization will also likely be strongly resisted by Guatemala’s biggest funders in anti-narcotics operations — the United States, which remains strongly opposed to such reforms, despite the legalization of marijuana in several states.