Why Did Ecuador Toughen Up Drug Laws?

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Ecuador’s Congress approved tougher penalties for small-time drug traffickers, an about-face from a more liberal policy which may have been prompted by the president’s stated “zero tolerance” approach to heroin use.

The new drug law will increase penalties for those caught trafficking small quantities of drugs, the Associated Press reported. Previously, defendants would face a minimum of two to six months in prison for trafficking small amounts of narcotics. Those caught trafficking larger amounts will face between three to five years in prison, up from one to three years. 

The law follows a prior set of reforms approved by Ecuador’s drug agency, CONSEP, which lowered the threshold for legal drug possession in the country. Previously, defendants would not be prosecuted if they were caught carrying less than one gram of heroin. Under Ecuador’s new policy, that’s been changed to 0.1 grams. 

Legal Drug Possession in Ecuador, Before and After

 Type of Drug          Before Ecuador’s Drug Reforms              After Ecuador’s Drug Reforms             
Heroin  Up to 1 gram Up to 0.1 grams
Cocaine Up to 50 grams Up to 2 grams
Marijuana Up to 300 grams Up to 20 grams

One of the most prominent critics of the reform has been the head of Ecuador’s public defender’s office, Ernesto Pazmiño. In an interview with newspaper El Comercio, he called the law “desperate” and “inefficient,” saying it would criminalize drug use and fill up the country’s prisons with low-level offenders serving unjust sentences. 

In response, Minister of Justice Ledy Zuñiga said the law would target “microtraffickers,” rather than those who consume drugs. “We’re not looking to criminalize consumption,” she said. 

Ecuador has recently prioritized combating small-scale drug trafficking: President Rafael Correa recently said that 85 percent of the country’s anti-drug agents are now focused on this issue. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Correa’s government previously had a more progressive stance towards drug policy, which included releasing drug mules from prison. The policy turn-around follows a series of statements by President Correa, in which he said Ecuador needed to tackle youth drug consumption, with a special focus on heroin. “We’ve got to put micro-traffickers in jail,” he said, later adding that the country needed to deploy “zero tolerance” towards heroin use. In another speech, he railed against the “impunity” that he said microtraffickers enjoyed in the justice system.

In its last annual report, CONSEP does not include data on drug consumption rates in Ecuador. In his interview with El Comercio, Public Defender Ernesto Pazmiño said there has been an increase in heroin use in the country, according to heroin overdose statistics kept by the Ministry of Health. However, there is no evidence that this increase in use came about because of lax drug possession laws, he added. 

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“I’m convinced that the president was given information without any technical evidence,” he told the newspaper. “That is, they said: there’s more [drug] consumption and it’s because of [the penal code]. The immediate reaction was let’s attack this by going after the penal code.”

Ecuador drug policy expert Jorge Paladines Rodriguez echoed Pazmiño’s comments and told InSight Crime there was “no evidence” that the country’s more liberal drug laws had led to greater drug consumption or trafficking. It’s also possible the new policy is meant to better appease Ecuador’s security forces, who never liked the previous drug laws, Paladines said. Notably, Correa has previously had a tense relationship with Ecuador’s police forces. 

“From a realpolitik point of view, this is a desperate cry to keep from losing popularity on an issue where there never was a state response, when it came to [drug use] prevention…” Paladines told InSight Crime. “And since we’re a society that focuses on punishment, the best response was [changing] the penal code.” 

Hannah Hetzer, the Senior Policy Manager for the Americas at advocacy group the Drug Policy Alliance, called the move “extremely disappointing backtracking.”

“President Correa is masquerading this under the pretense of protecting youth from drugs, when really this will only fill Ecuadorian prisons with people – mostly women – who are often forced into the drug trade, either out of violence or economic necessity,” she said.

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