Ecuador’s Drug Decriminalization Bid Has Lessons for the World

    When Rodrigo Velez received a call in 2008 asking him to become Ecuador’s new “Drug Czar,” he thought it was a joke. Velez managed a family-owned agro-business. He had no experience working in the public sector and knew little about illicit drugs.

    As a courtesy, he agreed to attend one meeting. Government officials laid out a shocking proposition. The new President, Rafael Correa, of PAIS Alliance, a center-left party, wanted to decriminalize drug use. Would Velez lead national reform efforts?

    At first, Velez declined. But officials insisted that the government needed his connections to private industry and skills bringing together diverse actors to solve problems. They explained the issues with overcrowded prisons and lack of drug treatment programs. Velez finally accepted.

    When I met Rodrigo Velez in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the mystery surrounding his appointment became clear. What Velez lacks in experience, he makes up for in passion. The charismatic 60-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair loves to problem-solve, to connect people, and to pound new ideas into old institutions—sometimes literally. Throughout our interview, he slammed his fist onto the table for emphasis.

    Rodrigo Velez meeting with colleagues. Photo courtesy of Velez.

    Ecuador’s new task force launched in 2008. Velez used his connections and charisma to gather industry leaders, academics, researchers and international law experts. One glaring omission from this group, however, was people directly impacted by drug policy and criminalization. Strict class divisions in Ecuador ensure that few policymakers invite marginalized populations to the table.

    The team studied global drug policy, visited local prisons and created a research agency to drive policy decisions. Within months they proposed a plan. Ecuador needed a constitutional amendment to declare illicit drug use a public health issue and decriminalize it. They also recommended releasing people with low-level drug charges from prison.

    For people who use drugs habitually and problematically, “in no case shall their criminalization or infringement of their rights be allowed.”

    In July 2008, Ecuador released 2,221 people from prison accused of small-scale drug transport. Most were women. That October, the nation of 16 million ratified a new constitution. It declared addiction a public health problem, and the government promised to invest in prevention and treatment. Article 364 states that for people who use drugs habitually and problematically, “in no case shall their criminalization or infringement of their rights be allowed.”

    Thrilled at their success, the team dove into the next task. They merged the penal codes around drug use, made sentencing laws more proportionate to crimes (previously, a person caught with 3 grams of marijuana faced 15 years in prison, a higher sentence than for rape) and generally reduced the role of the criminal justice system in drug policy.


    A Controversial Personal Use-“Trafficking” Divide

    In 2014, they rolled out the new penal code and a table that distinguished quantities of drugs for “personal consumption” from “trafficking” amounts.

    The new rules permitted possession of up to one gram of heroin for personal consumption. Possession of over one gram, considered small-scale trafficking, carried a sentence of two-to-six months in prison. Residents could own two grams of cocaine for personal use, while small-scale trafficking charges kicked in at 50 grams. For cannabis, the table set personal consumption at up to 10 grams and small-scale trafficking at 300 grams or more. Penalties rose with medium-scale, high-scale and large-scale trafficking, and sentences maxed out at 10-to-13 years.

    Clearly, while this reduced criminalization significantly, it did not come close to ending criminalization. The tables sparked intense debate across the country. Some skeptics pointed out that many people use over a gram of heroin daily. Limiting possession amounts forces them to buy heroin a little at a time, increasing their potentially risky contact with illicit markets.

    “Prison was hell … Nothing is going to change here.”

    Marcos Cerrano Chalen, a 32-year-old man whom I interviewed at his relative’s home, grew up in the small coastal village of Posorja. His neighborhood earned the nickname “Little Colombia,” he said, because almost all its residents use cocaine. At 18 years old, he began using cocaine problematically.

    Ecuador enacted drug policy reforms three years later, but Chalen said that for people like him, nothing changed. 

    “Police get weekly stipends from the narcos,” he told me. “Nothing is going to change here.”

    Chalen has endured Ecuador’s notorious treatment system—he described rehabs where hungry patients are forced to watch others eat food. During his four stints in prison, he slept in 10-by-20-foot cells with up to 18 other people and tried to avoid the roving eyes of prisoners who use newcomers for grunt work and sexual favors.

    “Prison was hell,” he said. “The traffickers carried weapons and killed each other over drug territory. They paid police to look away.”

    While many police were silent about prison abuse, they paid close attention to policy reforms, particularly the new tables on drug consumption. Many law enforcement claimed some traffickers used the tables to their benefit.


    How Public Opinion Turned

    “There was a problem with interpreting the tables,” said Major Diego Bolanos, a narcotics investigator whom I interviewed at his office in Manta, Ecuador. “Some sellers were taking advantage of the tables, carrying just under the small-scale amount to sell.”

    Law enforcement coined these sellers “micro-traffickers,” a term then popularized by the media and politicians. Public opinion turned. It was one thing to treat drug addiction as a health problem, but sellers needed harsh punishment, people said. 

    The reforms were “a shock for the public,” Alexandra Delgado, a psychologist who specializes in drug policy research, told Filter. “There is a lot of religiosity and morality in Ecuador. They call drug users delinquents and sinners. People don’t understand the difference between drug use and problematic drug use.” 

    Even President Rafael Correa, former champion of the public health approach to drug use, began railing against micro-traffickers—despite no evidence that drug use or sale had increased since the 2008 reforms. 

    “The easiest solution for politicians is to give in to populism and put more people in prison.”

    The debate on “consumers” versus “traffickers,” echoes a similar controversy in the United States. Last year I wrote for Filter about the racially charged dangers of drawing a hard line between users and sellers. Many people who use drugs also sell them, and many people who sell drugs also use them. 

    The emphasis on punishing sellerswhich in practice almost always applies to low-level sellers since high-level dealers are harder to findis a ruse to revitalize the drug war. The tactic is working. Many US states are charging drug sellers with murder if a customer overdoses. In Ecuador, the “micro-traffickers” narrative shifted public discourse back towards punishment.

    “The easiest solution for politicians is to give in to populism and put more people in prison,” attorney Daniel Kuri, a professor of Criminology in Guayaquil, Ecuador, told Filter. “Building a school gets more votes than building a drug treatment center.”

    By 2015, Velez and his team were under pressure to produce new tables with lower possession allowances and higher trafficking penalties. In protest, the team resigned.

    “We communicated badly to the population,” admitted Velez. “The political sectors took advantage of the bad communication to claim that the tables encouraged people to consume drugs.”

    In October 2015, the government put out a new table. The small-scale trafficking threshold for cocaine, previously set at 50 grams, plummeted to one, while penalties rose from a maximum of six months to a maximum of three years. The marijuana trafficking level dropped from 300 grams to 20. Trafficking charges for heroin kicked in at a minuscule 0.1 grams.


    Learning From Past Mistakes

    The rollback discouraged Velez and his team, but today they are using past mistakes to build a stronger case for reform.

    “Our biggest mistake was not educating people,” said Max Paredes, an investigator with Parametria, an organization dedicated to producing data on drug trends in Ecuador. “People have the same stigma against drugs they had 20 or 30 years ago … Politicians depend on the citizens. If the public says life in prison for anyone who commits a crime, politicians will start bringing it up.”

    Velez agrees. “When an election is coming, politicians offer whatever. People put their thumbs up or down like the Roman Colosseum.” He believes that educating the public means changing the language used to describe drug use and reaching out to families.

    I would add that including people most affected by punitive policy in decision-making is also critical to success. The best people to lead reform efforts are those with the most to gain.

    Providing relevant data is also part of education. Velez admits that although his team used evidence from other countries to build a case for reform, little data on drug trends exists in Ecuador. According to Daniel Kuri, successive governments have stalled efforts to collect such data. They fear the results might reflect poorly on their policies. 

    The national government may have also sabotaged its own reforms by not allocating funds towards addiction prevention and treatment. For example, Manabi Province, where I lived for two months in Ecuador, has only 171 state-funded beds for 1.5 million people. Private, uncertified rehabs fill in the gaps. Many use coercive or abusive tactics, such as locking patients into confinement rooms during withdrawal. 

    “The government let us work, but they didn’t complement it with other programs such as harm reduction and public health programs,” said Velez. Programs “strong enough to support and advance the political movement” were needed.

    Lack of coordination with law enforcement also hurt reform efforts. In 2008, the constitution changed, but enforcement tactics did not.

    “Police are indoctrinated to repress crime and rewarded for how many people they arrest,” said Velez. “The more traffickers they catch, the more their departments can ask for resources.” He argues that advocates must help police to recognize benefits of drug policy reform to their work. For example, de-emphasizing drugs allows law enforcement to focus on violent crime.

    “We have to stop thinking of drug policy reform as being about drugs. [It] is really about social transformation and learning to live with diversity.”

    Alexandra Delgado thinks advocates have to change the conversation around drugs to win new allies.

    “We have to stop thinking of drug policy as being about drugs,” she said. “We have to think about people, communities and contexts. We have to consider the environment in which drug use takes place and the reasons behind it. Drug policy reform is really about social transformation and learning to live with diversity.”

    In 2017, Lenin Moreno, formerly vice president under Correa, became head of state. Not much has changed on drug policy since he took office.

    Velez envisions a country where the government’s job is to regulate drugs and warn citizens of potential side effectsas we do now with alcohol, tobacco, medicine and food productsbut not to prohibit them.

    “Not all drug use is addiction,” he said (indeed, most is not). “People should have the freedom to decide what they consume.”

    For Ecuador, that vision looks farther away than it did 10 years ago, but advocates aren’t giving up. La lucha sigue. The fight continues. 


    Photo of Quito, capital of Ecuador, by César Viteri on Unsplash

    • Show Comments