Notes For Critical Thinking About Bolivian Drug Policy – Old Oppressions, New Actors

Notes For Critical Thinking About Bolivian Drug Policy – Old Oppressions, New Actors

*The following is a translated text, originally written in Spanish by Patricia Chulver Benitez of Estudiantes por una Política Sensata de Drogas, Bolivia (SSDP Bolivia). This is the final part of a three-part series outlining the challenges to sensible drug policy in South America, specifically in Bolivia. It is our hope that these narratives can shed light on the amount of work that needs to be done in regards to drug policy around the world. Check out part one and part two if you haven’t already before reading this piece 

Translation completed by Arturo Lua Castillo, SSDP’s Latin America Policy Intern. 

Of all of the world’s drug consumers, only 10% could be considered to be engaging in problematic drug use. This statistic is key to understanding the public issue of drugs as an inherited social construct.

Picture this: It’s the first week of May. There’s a broadcast on national television; a famous Bolivian economist talking about the relationship between prohibition and the pharmaceutical monopolies (What Enciso would call the wave of narco pharmacological imperialism ). Days later, the streets of La Paz are covered with a hundred young people marching for the decriminalization of marijuana as a matter of public health and restorative justice for users.

Transition of Pharmacological Thought

It is important to understand that legalization and decriminalization are not the same things. Many end up wrongly conceptualizing one or the other, disregarding that considering cannabis for its scientific and medicinal properties is not a new idea in Bolivia. The idea behind decriminalization or legalization of cannabis is not to create new laws but to repeal old laws. This idea has not yet found a place in Bolivian political expression.

Before cannabis prohibition, even the United States had an economy and medical culture that incorporated the cultivation and production of cannabis. The inclusion of THC in Schedule I of the UN’s 1961 UN Single Convention on Drugs presented unheard-of obstacles for the development and commercialization of cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Eventually, a World Health Organization Expert Committee conducted a critical review that resulted in a positive recommendation for the inclusion of dronabinol and all its stereoisomers to Schedule II of the 1971 Convention. This is how a precedent for the UN to recognize the medical utility of cannabis´ active component was born. Since it was placed in schedule II though, it meant that control over substances containing dronabinol was solely in the hands of pharmaceutical companies.

Currently, the demands from the sector of Bolivian society that calls for the decriminalization of cannabis for medicinal purposes is met with a glimmer of hope from the law. Article 19 of the New Law on Controlled Substances states that, by authorization, the ministry of health can issue the authorization of the use of controlled substances for medical and scientific research purposes.

New Places of Political Enunciation In Bolivia

Bolivia, which has historically been at the center of the drug war in North America, now has its own great actors in research, activism, and the politics in the subject of drug policy reform. Real change requires diverse actors and instruments. Theory alone would be meaningless in public policy if it’s not formed from a critical view of the system for which it is designed. The same can be said with activism which can condemn itself to failure by trivializing a complex problem.

To maintain openness in these newly found places of political enunciation, understanding the history of the struggle and the consequences of its actors is essential. Academics, consumers, victims of the justice system, and cancer patients are opening a new dialogue for a demand that was unrecognized. It is a manifestation of the oppressed, the stigmatized, and the invisible.

In conclusion, looking at history from the viewpoint of the oppressed sheds light and helps in the understanding of current theoretical constructs behind our public policy based on values and problems. If it is true that no one can invent gunpowder, Bolivia needs new blood from academia and from politics. It is essential to create places of critical thought now that new places of political enunciation are sprouting in the country.