Puerto Rico is edging away from its notoriously harsh marijuana laws, and activist groups are leading the way.
A joint between his lips, toes in the sand, Mike Martin looked like just another dude chilling on the beach in Puerto Rico. But as the 47-year-old Rastafarian blew smoke in my direction, he outlined his vision of justice: legal weed in the US territory.
"Legalization is coming," Martin told me. "The last several days have made that clear."
Martin, who sits on the board of Puerto Rico's preeminent pro-marijuana non-profit Foundation Free Juana, was referring to the government's recent moves toward decreasing its draconian weed penalties. Two weeks ago, the governor pardoned Jeremy Ruiz Tomassini, a 24-year-old man sentenced to four years in prison after cops caught him smoking near a school. The pardon, granted January 25, came 13 months after Free Juana delivered a petition to Governor Alejandro Padilla that the punishment, issued in 2014, was unreasonably harsh.
"We made an official petition and held a 'free Jeremy' vigil at the governor's mansion and my band played there," said Martin. "Then this January the governor came to Vieques for Three Kings Day to pass gifts to children in the park, and I went to talk with him. I introduced myself and said I play with Free Juana. He took me aside and asked me, 'How much time has Jeremy been inside?' He was worried about it."
Within days, Padilla released Ruiz Tomassini from prison, claiming he was not an enforcement priority.
Ruiz Tomassini's pardon was just one indicator that Puerto Rico is edging away from its notoriously harsh marijuana laws. Current legislation allows judges to sentence people up to five years for nominal possession, and up to ten years for possession near a recreational area (public use spaces like parks and schools). But recently politicians have begun changing their approaches towards the drug and activists like Martin see it as an opportunity to pave the way toward legalization.
There are already signs of progress: Governor Padilla signed an executive order last summer to legalize weed for medicinal purposes, and just last month the government unveiled its set of rules to regulate the cultivation, distribution, and use of the substance. Growers, who can be based in Puerto Rico or abroad, will apply for permission from the government; patients will receive medical marijuana ID cards, after receiving a doctor's approval that they have one of several "debilitating conditions." If all goes according to plan, medical marijuana is expected to be available in Puerto Rico by the end of the year.
Padilla also loosened Puerto Rico's penalties for small amounts of recreational possession, when he signed an executive order in September advising judges not to imprison people caught with fewer than six grams of weed.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico's pro-marijuana movement has taken off in the past few years. Both Free Juana and another organization, Decriminalization, have become influential on the island. Both have amplified their reach, garnering more media attention and support from the public, while US states with legalized weed have also helped pave the way, emboldening Puerto Rican politicians like Padilla to support marijuana activists.
"When Free Juana had its first 4/20 rally there were just 20 or 30 people who were brave enough to march towards the capital. We thought we could be arrested," Martin recalled of the protest in 2013. Now, multiple bands play each year, two senators sponsor the rallies, and Free Juana has grown from a group of local activists into an official foundation.
"In the past two years, there has been an opening," said Rafael Torruellla, director of Decriminalization and of the drug education and research organization Intercambios Puerto Rico. "There's a marijuana movement here in Puerto Rico that only now is gaining more steam."
One reason is the economy, according to Torruella, a social psychologist with a PhD from City University of New York. Puerto Rico is currently $70 billion in debt, and a regulated drug market in Puerto Rico would ease the island's economic crisis.
"This difficult economic time is when we should start looking at what is failing," Torruella told me. "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."
Torruella said the governor's executive orders are "very significant" but the job is hardly finished. Puerto Rico's Congress needs to act to ensure the orders become law.
"Medical marijuana is an executive order, not a law, which is important because the next governor can dismantle the whole system," Torruella warned.
Already, Padilla's opponents are trying to block the order in court. Members of the political party Partido Nuevo Progresista have requested a judge issue an injunction preventing medical marijuana distribution. The judge has not yet released a decision.
The current medical marijuana standards could also be better, Torruella said: There should be provisions for patients to cultivate their own crops, for the market to favor local growers, doctors, and cooperative farms.
"There are some foreign pharmacies that are establishing themselves to sell. There has been a big controversy on how business will be done. The [government] seems already to be favoring big pharmaceutical companies," Torruella said. "There are many questions that remain about how this system is going to work."
There have been other attempts to pass marijuana legislation: Senator Miguel Pereira proposed a bill to decriminalize possessing small amounts marijuana, but it has been stalled in the House of Representatives since 2013. Opponents of the law were so irate they demanded Pereira's resignation.
As conservative Puerto Rican politicians demonize the drug and the island takes baby steps towards legalization, Martin stays patient, aided by his herbs on the seashore.
"It doesn't matter how long it takes for legalization. It's going to happen," Martin told me, taking a seat in a lawn chair beside the water. "We're not in a hurry. We just want to bring consciousness and decriminalize and medicalize it, and eventually it will be legal."
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