BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Argentina has broadly legalized the use of medicinal cannabis in a series of progressive new regulations that will allow people to grow plants at home. The new rules also state that cannabis products should be made available for free in the country’s public health system for patients who don’t have health insurance.
The South American country technically legalized medicinal cannabis in 2017, but only for patients with severe epilepsy. A new regulation published on November 12 allows cannabis to be prescribed for any condition as long as there’s scientific evidence that it helps.
Cannabis campaigners enthusiastically welcomed the news. “Finally, the regulation we’ve been waiting for since March 2017,” said Valeria Salech, president of campaigning group Mamá Cultiva Argentina.
“This new stage [in the law] starts to redress the injustice of the persecution and stigmatization of a plant that has brought quality of life to a lot of people,” the organization said in a statement on social media.
People with a cannabis prescription will be allowed to grow their own plants or get it from a friend or family member, as long as the grower is signed up to a government register. They will also be able to get it through the national health system.
The legal annex detailing the new regulations includes the requirement to “implement measures to provide, for free on behalf of the state, products derived from the cannabis plant for patients who have a medical prescription and only have public health coverage”.
The regulation recognizes that many people were already using cannabis for medicinal purposes, often organizing informal supply networks, but the 2017 regulations left them outside the law.
Mamá Cultiva Argentina was founded in 2016 by a group of mothers who were using cannabis to treat their children’s health conditions. Their mission was “to demand legality for an activity that we were already doing […] which gave us what conventional medicine couldn’t - quality of life and dignity for our loved ones.”
Medicinal cannabis has gained some high-profile supporters in recent years. Nora Cortiñas of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers whose children were disappeared during Argentina’s last dictatorship, said she uses cannabis for pain relief.
The criminalization of drug use is a legal gray area in Argentina. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to penalize adults for possession of drugs for personal consumption in their own home. But the ruling was never made into law, and the police continue to arrest and prosecute drug users, especially in deprived communities.
“There’s really strong police discretion,” said Victoria Darraidou, coordinator of citizen security and police violence at the Center for Legal and Social Studies, a human rights NGO. “In many cases the police don’t take the Supreme Court’s ruling into account.”
The old law made life especially difficult for producers of medicinal cannabis oil, because the number of plants needed to produce it meant they could be prosecuted for dealing, according to Darraidou. “[This is] a step forward, not just for Argentina but for the region.”
Neighbouring Uruguay has the most progressive cannabis laws in South America, where it is legal for all uses. Adults are free to grow their own and it is also on sale in pharmacies. Many cannabis advocates hope to see something similar in Argentina.
Argentina’s leftwing government recognizes that the drug war approach isn’t working and usually penalizes consumers instead of traffickers. President Alberto Fernández said before he was elected that “the war on drugs has failed” and “the solution isn’t to go around persecuting people for smoking a joint”.
In early 2020, shortly after the government came to power, local media reported that ministers were examining legal cannabis systems in other countries with a view to possibly decriminalizing it.
Argentina is Latin America’s third largest economy, with a population of 44 million. A Uruguay-style legal cannabis market would likely have major consequences for the drug trade in the region.
For now, campaigners will focus on the implementation of the new rules. “This is progress that commits us to keep working to expand rights,” Salech said.