50 States

50 States: Puerto Rico

By Jon Young

50 States: Puerto Rico

Medical: Yes (By executive order)
Recreational: No
Decriminalized: partially (By executive order)

In early 2014, Puerto Rico seemed poised to legalize medical cannabis, making it the first American territory to do so. Another territory, Guam, succeeded later that year, while the legislative effort in Puerto Rico ultimately failed. Finally, in 2015, Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla signed an executive order to legalize the use of medical marijuana (MMJ), ending years of debate that failed to gain traction.

“We’re taking a significant step in the area of health that is fundamental to our development and quality of life,” Gov. Padilla said. “I am sure that many patients will receive appropriate treatment that will offer them new hope.”

The move came after years of dealing with a struggling economy that is almost $70 billion in debt and looking for ways to stem the financial bleeding, including asking its citizens for suggestions, two of which were to legalize cannabis and allow prostitution. (For the record, no, the governor did not issue an executive order legalizing the latter.)

Unemployment is currently at 15 percent on the island, with 45 percent of its population in poverty, forcing many to make the decision to leave the island for the U.S. mainland where there are now more Puerto Ricans living than on Puerto Rico itself.  

"This difficult economic time is when we should start looking at what is failing," said Rafael Torruella, director of advocacy group Decriminalization, according to Vice. "We're trying to move drug policy from the law and order side to where it should belong, which is in the public health side."

While the Governor’s executive order was a significant step in loosening Puerto Rico’s harsh drug laws, Torruella warns it might not be enough.

"Medical marijuana is an executive order, not a law,” Torruella said. “Which is important because the next governor can dismantle the whole system."

Regulation 155, as the bill is known, allows for the cultivation, manufacturing and distribution of cannabis to treat a list of 14 qualified conditions, including HIV, hepatitis, cancer, crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis, among others. Patients would not be allowed to smoke cannabis or grow it themselves. According to health officials, MMJ should be available to qualified patients by the end of the year.

Puerto Rico has long been known for its draconian drug laws, with automatic felony convictions, two to five years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine for possession for any amount of cannabis. In 2013, a decriminalization bill was introduced by Senator Miguel Pereira but failed to move past the House, leading Gov. Padilla to issue another executive order to decrease penalties for those arrested with six grams of cannabis or less in their possession.

''This is certainly a step,” Pereira said. “But it will not have such a broad effect as the [decriminalization] project would.''

While law enforcement is encouraged to follow the order, prosecutors are by no means forced to comply, as executive orders do not change the law.

With the escalating fiscal crisis, increasing poverty and mass exodus of Puerto Ricans from the island, lawmakers are becoming more willing to look at other options, especially the legalization of cannabis as a means to boost tourism and reduce the amount of money spent on non-violent drug offenders.

Gov. Padilla, who is not seeking re-election, called for the legalization of cannabis in his last public address. He said that taking such action would lower crime and target hypocrisy, and legislators should at a minimum approve a bill filed in 2013 that would decriminalize marijuana.

Mike Martin, a 47-year-old Puerto Rican Rastafarian and board member of Free Juana, a pro-cannabis advocacy group on the island, is confident the island is heading toward full-legalization.

"It doesn't matter how long it takes for legalization. It's going to happen," Martin said. "We're not in a hurry. We just want to bring consciousness and decriminalize and medicalize it, and eventually it will be legal."

Photo credit: Unsplash.  

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