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Ecuador Legalises Medical Cannabis and Hemp Cultivation with 1% THC Limit

By Emily Ledger

Ecuador has introduced new hemp laws, legalising the cultivation of the cannabis plant up to a THC limit of 1.0%. The plant has been excluded from the country’s list of controlled substances under the Comprehensive Organic Criminal Code (COIP).

Under the new legislation, hemp will be placed controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. The Ministry is expected to set out regulations and guidelines for the cultivation of hemp within 120 days of the law’s enactment at the end of June.

Ecuador’s Hemp Laws

Hemp cultivation has been illegal in the South American country until now, despite the climate being favourable for the plant. However, the THC limit set by the new law will allow the country’s new hemp industry to effectively compete with other countries.

Although many are pleased with the new hemp laws, there has been some criticism of some of the rules. The Federation of Cannabis Communities of Ecuador has questioned rules that they say would limit the ability of small-scale producers and peasants to enter the industry. For example, licenses and fees will apply to those who want to cultivate the crop.

THC Limits in Hemp Cultivation

In most countries that currently allow hemp cultivation, the global standard THC limit of 0.3% is adhered to. Nonetheless, a growing number of jurisdictions have raised the limit to 1.0% THC, including Switzerland, South Africa, and Thailand.

In contrast, EU member states are generally limited to a THC limit of 0.2%, although Italy is known to tolerate the cultivation of plants up to 0.6% THC.

Hemp plants with higher THC levels tend to also produce a higher concentration of CBD (cannabidiol). Products containing CBD have gained massive popularity in recent years, making the ingredient the most lucrative hemp-derived product. This may give countries with higher THC limits an advantage in the expanding CBD market.

Medical Cannabis in Ecuador

Alongside the legalisation of hemp, medical cannabis will also be permitted in Ecuador. In September 2019, the country’s legislature approved the medicinal use of cannabis up to 1.0% THC. The co-occurring expansion of Ecuador’s hemp industry may also help to expand the production of medical cannabis products in the country.

There have been calls for expansion of the hemp industries around the world, including in the UK. The environmental benefits and revenue opportunities presented by the crop has put hemp on the agenda.

Ecuador has introduced new hemp laws, legalising the cultivation of hemp with a limit of up to a THC limit of 1.0%.

Cannabis in Ecuador – Laws, Use, and History

Before 2013, Ecuador’s cannabis laws were tough, with hardly any differentiation being made between casual users and large-scale traffickers. As a result, the prisons became badly overcrowded. After protest from human rights groups, the law changed and personal use of cannabis (up to 10 grams) was decriminalised, permitting limited cultivation at home.

    • CBD Products
    • Illegal
    • Recreational cannabis
    • Decriminalized
    • Medicinal cannabis
    • Illegal

Cannabis laws in Ecuador

Can you possess and use cannabis in Ecuador?

Until recently, it was illegal to use or possess even small quantities of cannabis in Ecuador. The country was widely condemned for its harsh drug laws (among the toughest in South America), which incarcerated people who were caught with limited amounts of cannabis for personal use.

The Transnational Institute (TNI) highlighted that someone caught with a few grams of cannabis could potentially be put in prison for as long as twelve years. The success of Ecuador’s drug laws was assessed based on how many people were behind bars – and unsurprisingly, this led to serious prison overcrowding. At certain points, 50% of the country’s prison population were locked up for drugs-related offences.

TNI also revealed the way in which the old laws contradicted constitutional laws – by regarding people accused of drug offences as guilty before they’ve even had a chance to appear in court.

In 2013, Ecuador’s government amended these tough laws. Now, individuals won’t be prosecuted if caught with up to 10 grams of cannabis. Minister for Justice Diego Garcia emphasised that “the law allows consumption and considers it not criminal, but cultivation, trafficking and sale of small or high amounts [of drugs] remain illegal.” He also stated that “according to the Constitution (article 364), we do not criminalise drug use. We consider it a health problem and not a crime”

Can you sell cannabis in Ecuador?

The sale and supply of cannabis in Ecuador are illegal, and offenders can be given hefty prison sentences if caught.

Law 108 (which was introduced in 1991) indicated a minimum of 10 years in prison for drug dealers and traffickers. However, it also allowed the court to convict the offender of several crimes at once, which means the prison sentence could be raised significantly. For example, an individual could be accused of transporting cannabis, and also of trafficking it, which might get him a prison sentence of up to 25 years. To provide a point of comparison, the maximum sentence for murder is just 16 years!

Sandra Edwards, researcher for a TNI / WOLA study of drug laws in Ecuador, gives an example of the system in practice: “In Ecuador, an illiterate single mother with no previous criminal record who smuggles a few grams of drugs to provide for her children can end up condemned to more years in prison than a murderer. This is not only unfair, but it is also ineffective.”

Analia Silva, an Afro-Ecuadorian single mother of two, was arrested for selling drugs. She commented: “When they sentenced me… they not only sentence the person who committed the crime, they also sentence their family… They [authorities] don’t realise that they want to get rid of crime, but they are the ones promoting it, because if they [the children] are left alone… what can they do? Go and steal…my daughter would become a prostitute, my son would…deal drugs, sell drugs.”

In spite of the tough prison sentences, drug trafficking is on the rise in Ecuador. Once regarded as one of the safer South American nations, drug seizures are increasing year-on-year, and the country is now regarded as a major ‘transit’ route for drugs being smuggled to the US or Europe.

Can you grow cannabis in Ecuador?

Cultivation of cannabis for personal use has now been decriminalised. That means, if caught growing a limited number of plants at home, an individual will no longer be prosecuted. Likewise, cannabis can be legally grown for scientific or research purposes, providing the company in question has permission from the country’s Technical Secretariat of Drugs (SETED).

There isn’t much domestic cultivation in Ecuador, especially when compared to other South American nations. It’s more of a ‘transit’ country in that drugs pass through it, and then on to other locations.

Is CBD legal in Ecuador?

CBD is currently illegal to use, purchase or sell in Ecuador. However, in 2019, the Ecuadorian Congress started debating the legalisation of CBD oil for medicinal purposes, providing it contained no more than 1% THC (the substance responsible for providing the ‘high’).

If the amendment to the law was passed, CBD would only be available in pharmacies. The origin and strain of the cannabis used to make it would also have to be obvious.

Veronica Espinosa, Ecuador’s Health Minister, commented: “Cannabis can be a medical alternative, and we should not deprive our patients of it.”

Can cannabis seeds be sent to Ecuador?

While Ecuador’s government have decriminalised limited cultivation of cannabis, they haven’t legalised its growth. As such, cannabis seeds are still technically illegal to use, buy or purchase, and they cannot be sent through the mail.

Medicinal cannabis in Ecuador

Medicinal cannabis isn’t currently legal in Ecuador, but this may be set to change soon. At the end of 2018, an important legislative committee approved extensive health reforms, which could lead to the cultivation, production and use of medicinal cannabis in the country.

If the bill is passed, President Lenin Moreno would have the ability to veto it, either completely or partially.

Juan Pablo Bahamonde, director of UBG (who specialises in health regulation) stated: “Despite the uncertainty ahead, there’s a high probability of success, considering pro-government legislators have the majority in the Parliament.”

If passed, the legislation would establish a patient registry in Ecuador, and cannabis products would be distributed to pharmacies. The THC content of the cannabis would be capped at 1%.

Industrial hemp in Ecuador

It’s illegal to grow hemp in Ecuador, despite the fact that many parts of the country are well suited to its cultivation, with ideal climate and soil conditions. While the government hasn’t indicated that the law will be changed any time soon, they may be influenced by South American countries like Uruguay, which are capitalising on the profit-making potential of hemp.

Good to know

If you are travelling to Ecuador (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:

  • Cannabis use isn’t that prevalent in Ecuador, especially when compared to other South American countries. A UNODC report found that just 0.7% of Ecuadorians aged 15 to 64 use it. This is significantly less than countries like Argentina and Chile (7.2% and 6.7% respectively).
  • One survey found that Quito (Ecuador’s capital) was the cheapest city in the world to purchase cannabis, with one gram costing just $1.34.
  • Much of the drug trafficking in Ecuador is coordinated by Colombian cartels, which recruit Ecuadorian gangs to transport their drugs for them. Cocaine is regarded as a far bigger problem than cannabis.

Cannabis history

It’s thought that cannabis first came to South America in the 1500s, in the form of hemp. The Spanish brought the plant with them into Chile, and used it to make rope and rigging for their boats. Surplus hemp was then passed upwards through Peru, where it eventually arrived in Ecuador.

Cannabis was also brought to the continent with the African slaves, in the 1800s. The Portuguese brought the slaves to Brazil, then condemned their use of cannabis for recreational purposes. At around the same time, the British also brought Indian indentured labourers to South America, who also used the plant recreationally.

It’s believed that the name ‘marijuana’ (which is the most commonly used term in Ecuador and the continent as a whole), came from Mexico. The Mexicans originally called it ‘marihuana’. By the early 1900s, cannabis prohibition was spreading from the US towards South America, with many countries choosing to ban it.

Ecuador’s persecution of cannabis users is a recent phenomenon. Although the country’s drug laws started to get tougher in the 1980s, drug users weren’t given prison sentences. Instead, they were required to undertake medical assessment and treatment, if needed.

Law 108, which was introduced in 1991, saw the country adopt a far harsher approach for those caught using cannabis. From then onwards, those caught with small amounts of the drug were subject to similar penalties as high-level traffickers.

In 2013, this law changed, decriminalising cannabis for personal use.

Prior to 2013, Ecuador’s cannabis laws were notoriously draconian. Now, cannabis use and limited cultivation have been decriminalised. Read on for more.