Will Panama be the Next Country to Legalize Medicinal Cannabis

When it comes to medical cannabis and its legalization, one of the key areas observers should be paying attention to is Latin America.  In recent years, a number of countries have begun experimenting with progressive drug laws, and have introduced reforms which make accessing medical marijuana easier for patients.

And one of the places that should be on the immediate radar of those paying attention is Panama. The country’s National Assembly has recently taken up a measure which, if successful, could see them become the first Central American nation to legalize medical pot.

Details Of The Legalization Talks

The current discussions are part of ongoing talks working towards a framework for legalization.  Introduced two years ago, Bill 595 was put forward by legislator Jose Castillo, and would effectively “authorize and regulate the medicinal use of cannabis“. It was initially proposed as a measure to assist both the severely ill (cancer sufferers, patients with chronic pain, etc) and out of a concern for children suffering from epilepsy.  

Since its proposal, the bill has been subject to multiple deliberations in the National Assembly, being kicked back and forth, modified and altered a number of times. While many of the details are still up for debate, we do know that under the original framework, the private sector could play a role in importing and distribution, but not in producing and cultivating cannabis locally.  We also know that (if the law is passed in its current form) it will be limited in scope, and only offer patients access to cannabis oils, tinctures and extracts.

Current Status

As of this month, we know that the measure has been taken up again after initial approval pending further study from Panama’s previous legislature, and will need to go through another round of debates and deliberations.  If it makes it through that stage, it will have to be signed by President Laurentino Cortizo before it becomes law.

The Legal Status And History Of Cannabis In Panama

The use, sale, cultivation and distribution of cannabis in the country is very much illegal, and has been since 1928.

But while Panama doesn’t quite have the same notorious past reputation as its neighbour Colombia, it does certainly have a long history with cannabis and the illicit drug trade.

In fact, one of the earliest studies conducted into the use of cannabis comes out of Panama.  In 1933, a now famous military report was published on cannabis use by US personnel in the Canal Zone.  The study, entitled Marijuana Smoking In Panama, tracked thirty-four soldiers throughout their use and subsequent withdrawal from the plant. 

The report, created by Colonel Joseph Franklin Siler, Chief Health Officer of the United States Army Medical Corps, was one of the first studies to present strong evidence against the notion that marijuana is habit forming.

But Panama also has a much darker history when it comes to drug trafficking.  Described as a “narco-kleptocracy” by then-Senator John Kerry in the 80’s, it’s now well known that the government of dictator Manuel Noriega held significant ties to traffickers in the region (including the infamous Medellin Cartel headed by Pablo Escobar).  

All of this was well-known to the US government – but the fact that the country’s geographical position made it a buffer zone between the US and anti-American governments in the region (and the fact that Noriega himself was a longtime collaborator with the CIA) led them to turn a blind eye to what was happening.  

And while the situation eventually became intolerable and Noriega overthrown by the George HW Bush administration in 1989, the fact that it had been allowed to go on for so long became a major source of embarrassment for the United States.

Trends In Other Latin American Countries

Since the days of Noriega, Panama, and indeed much of Latin America, has cleaned up a lot of the drug issues that have plagued them for decades.

Much like Canada and (increasingly) the United States, governments in the region have begun to realize that the policy of prohibition has done them no favors.  Many of Panama’s southern neighbors have introduced more progressive drug policies in recent years, with Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay and Chile all putting forward decriminalizing laws on medical marijuana.

one of the earliest studies conducted into the use of cannabis comes out of Panama
one of the earliest studies conducted into the use of cannabis comes out of Panama

What Panama’s Legalization Could Mean For The Region (And The Cannabis Industry)

The fact that Panama is located where it is has long made it a hideout for drug traffickers, as well as a prime transit point for narcotics.  Bordered by Colombia to the south and Costa Rica to the north, Panama acts as a critical bridge between Central and South America.

But while its location has in the past made it a vital link for the illicit drug trade, it could very well do the same for the legal cannabis trade as we well.

Panama has a number of unique assets which strengthen its potential position in the industry.  Its geographical location (and the Panama Canal) is obvious – with the cannabis business booming in South America (particularly in Colombia), the country is in the perfect spot to facilitate the legal industry and capitalize on the green boom happening on its southern border.

It’s also a major financial centre for Latin America, with plenty of investment opportunities. And while poverty rates still remain high in the countryside, the nation of approximately four million people has made tremendous progress with high quality infrastructure in its urban areas, and has earned the distinction of being the second fastest growing economy in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In addition, it’s far more politically stable than it was under the “narco-kleptocracy” of Manuel Noriega.  While it certainly still has its fair share of issues, Panama, like so much of the region, has come a long way in its development.

Ultimately, if they do go through with legalization, it will represent one more step in the right direction, as Latin America moves away from its dark past into an era of progressive drug polices.