Chile, the country, not to be confused with Chili (the food), is the longest north/south oriented country in the world, stretching across 39 degrees of latitudes, giving it plenty of climates for growing cannabis, and the traditional drug of choice, coca leaf. While Chile legalized medical cannabis before any other country in Latin America and has the highest rate of cannabis use on the continent, they have not managed to finalize plans to decriminalize cannabis for non-medical use.
Can You Bring Cannabis to Chile?
Before getting into Chilean cannabis laws, let’s talk briefly about if you can bring cannabis to Chile. While technically, it is legal to import cannabis to Chile for medical use, that exemption is really intended for Chilean citizens importing their medical cannabis; it is not an exemption to bring cannabis with you on a plane. While currently Chile’s Anti-Narcotics Law is being updated, with a November 23rd deadline for updates to be made, there is no expectation that it will become legal to bring personal-use cannabis to Chile from other countries.
Long History of Hemp and Cannabis in Chile
Cannabis was not native to the “new world,” and the indigenous peoples of the Americas had no idea what hemp was until colonists and conquistadors brought it with them, originally for cultivation for fiber to make ropes and sails (critical for repairing damage their ships may have suffered on the Atlantic crossing). According to the book Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years, “As early as 1545, hemp seed was sown in the Quillota Valley, near the city of Santiago in Chile.” Most of the hemp fiber produced in those initial cultivation experiments became rope for the army stationed in Chile, with any remaining fibers going to replace worn out rigging on ships that docked in Santiago. Eventually, there was enough of a surplus to send hemp fibers as far away as Lima, Peru, which was critical to the colonists there, as attempts to cultivate hemp in Peru and Colombia were failures.
It is possibly due to this long history of hemp cultivation and use that Chile has “the highest levels of marijuana use in Latin America,” with 14.5% of residents saying they consumed cannabis in the past year (compared to 18% in the United States).
Limited Medical Cannabis Program
Chile was the first South American country to have a medical cannabis program. In 2014, the Daya Foundation got approval for a trial grow of 850 plants to make medicine for 200 patients. The following year, Daya was able to scale up their cultivation to nearly 7,000 plants with the goal of producing medicines for 4,000 patients. With those additional plants, Daya’s cultivation is now the largest medical cannabis grow in all of Latin America, and is being tended to by over a dozen full-time gardeners. They anticipate harvesting over 2,000 kilos of bud, roughly 1/3 kilo per plant (almost a pound).
Now Chilean medical cannabis patients have alternate options to the medicines produced in the country by Daya, and they can pick them up at two pharmacies in Santiago. The pharmacies are selling two products made in Canada by Tilray, distributed to Chile through a partnership with Chile’s Alef Biotechnology. Patients also can grow their own, but what they grow must be used exclusively for personal use by the patient.
Decriminalization in Limbo
Following quickly on the heels of Daya getting the green light to start the largest medical cannabis cultivation in South America, the lower house of Chile’s Congress voted on a bill to decriminalize cannabis for personal consumption. Before becoming law, the bill needed approval from a health committee and then would go to the Senate for a vote, but it has been stalled. Despite the lack of clarity around whether or not decriminalization was approved (some sites imply it was, others do not), medical use of cannabis in private is legal and there seems to be an attitude where if consumption is discreetly done in private, it likely will not result in legal issues.
A New Constitution, New Chances For Legalization?
Following massive countrywide protests that rocked Chile in 2019 and 2020, Chileans voted for a new constitution convention. The goal of that convention would be to pass a new constitution to replace the one created in 1980, a holdover from Pinochet’s dictatorship. Cannabis legalization activists and observers have noted that the constitutional convention who wrote it appears to be supportive of cannabis decriminalization. According to the Daya Foundation, over two-thirds of the delegates at the constitutional convention “support effective decriminalization … of cannabis and home cultivation.” Unfortunately, Chileans voted no on the new constitution, leaving the old one in place for now.
Coca Leaf and Coca Tea Legal in Chile
Chile is one of the only countries on earth where coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived, can be legally used in the unprocessed form (the raw leaves are legal, cocaine is still very illegal). Chile has a long history of coca use, going back thousands of years. Traditionally, coca was consumed either as a tea or by simply chewing the leaves, these days it is most commonly drunk as a tea. Coca was ancestrally used as a treatment for altitude sickness by the people who lived around the Andean mountains and is still used by hikers and backpackers today.