SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — In a surprise move, Puerto Rico’s governor signed an executive order on Sunday legalizing medical marijuana in the U.S. territory. Lengthy controversy has surrounded the issue, with the island’s government $70 billion in debt and bogged down in a failed battle to stem an illegal drug trade.
Voter frustration over unemployment at 15 percent and nearly half the population living in poverty has driven a debate over legalizing both cannabis and prostitution. Proponents argue existing policies have failed and legalization could kickstart the economy and regulate black market sectors that presently contribute nothing to public coffers.
Possession of any amount of cannabis in Puerto Rico has been illegal and punishable with up to five years in prison and a fine of $5,000, a policy that has not reduced crime but added significant costs to law enforcement and the judiciary.
In a Danica Coto report for The Associated Press, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla is quoted as saying of his unexpected decision, “We’re taking a significant step in the area of health that is fundamental to our development and quality of life. I am sure that many patients will receive appropriate treatment that will offer them new hope.”
The order directs the health department to authorize the use of some or all cannabis derivatives for medical use. The governor said more details are to come, outlining the specific authorized uses. He noted that medical marijuana is used in the U.S. mainland and elsewhere to treat pain associated with migraines and illnesses including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and AIDS.
Jaime Perello, president of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, said, “It’s a step in the right direction. One of the benefits that patients say they receive the most is pain relief.”
Opposition legislator Jenniffer Gonzalez said the governor’s order creates a “judicial limbo” for laws on controlled substances.
While the executive order went into immediate effect, Puerto Rico’s health secretary has been given three months to provide a report detailing how the new policy will be implemented and what future steps could be taken.
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Jamaica recently decriminalized small amounts of pot and has taken steps to pave the way for a legal medical marijuana industry.
Image: Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla / WikiCommons