Panama's medical cannabis legalization bill, still pending almost two years later

On February 12, 2019, Panama City hosted more than 60 speakers for two days in its first ever medical cannabis conference. The conference was a premier meeting of some of the biggest movers in the medical cannabis sphere and was a resounding, sold out, success.

Panama is a crucial link between Central and South America and between the east and west coasts of North and South America. It is a place that could play a vital role in the distribution of medical cannabis across the Americas and the world. 

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In October 2017, Panama introduced a bill, 595, that would legalize medical marijuana. Though Panama is making a name for itself as an epicenter of medical cannabis, the bill is still yet to become law despite years of debates and modifications. 

The bill passed its first debate in March 2018. Since then, it has gained shape as a regulatory framework. However, in April of this year, the bill was sent back to the preliminary debate stages due to fears over security and access to the marijuana plant, which will remain illegal to consume recreationally.

City buildings and lights shown at night.

Panama is a commerce epicenter 

Since the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, Panama solidified its place as a center for global commerce. 

In the 20-teens the country’s economy has grown rapidly at around 10 percent per year since the beginning of the decade. It is the largest financial hub in the Western Hemisphere, with banking laws reminiscent of Switzerland.

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The country is touted as having some of the best infrastructures in Latin America and is number 66 on the human development report by the United Nations

For these reasons and more, the global cannabis community believes Panama could be the global epicenter of the medical cannabis trade. 

Only one major problem remains — medical cannabis is still illegal in Panama despite multiple years of legislative attempts to pass the bill into law.

A long road stretches across dry, desert-type land.

The long road of Bill 595

Panama’s medical cannabis bill, as in other countries, is designed to help those suffering from illnesses with symptoms that could be lessened by the drug. 

The Minister of Health Miguel Mayo lauded the expanded use of cannabis for those suffering from incurable illnesses.

The first proposal of the bill in October 2017, presented by Legislator Jose Luis Castillo Gomez, states that the motivation of the draft is, “On the importance of the therapeutic use of cannabis, known as marijuana, it’s benefits are recognized when used for medicinal purposes.”

The bill continues to ask for the “duly regulated” legal reforms that will permit the use of medical cannabis within Panama. 

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Soon after, in January 2018, the bill moved forward in the legislative process, whereby deregulation measures, such as security and legal jurisdictions, would be established by the health, agricultural, and trade departments after three rounds of debates.

When the draft of the law passed the first debate, it appeared to be smooth sailing for the remaining stages of its passage. 

Over the next year, legislators met with community leaders and industry stakeholders, which established the deregulation policies based on the legislation of other countries and input from the health and security sectors. 

In a report from the Panamanian government, “The Health Commission … is informed by laws that already exist in countries of America and Europe to reach conclusions based on the scientific method.”

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Throughout the last year, legislators and stakeholders have added to, subtracted from, and modified the bill until April of this year when the Ministry of Health presented their version of the law to be approved.

Only it wasn’t.

In a statement from Mayo, he stressed that the government does not want this bill to encourage recreational use in any way and wants to differentiate that the medicinal substance is non-psychoactive. “It is very important to take into account the debate of recreational marijuana usage; the quantities used [for medicine] are minimal and don’t create reactions that recreational use causes.” 

Telemetro, a Panamanian news site, confirmed reports that legislators are worried about the securitization of the drug, indicating that the principal rejection of the bill arises from security issues; the same geographic benefits that would benefit a legal cannabis market in Panama, nourish the illegal market. 

What’s next for the bill?  

Over a year after the legislature approved the draft in the first debate, the bill has been sent back to that stage after the amendments to the framework failed to pass the second debate. 

Support for medical cannabis continues across the legislature, with the head of the subcommittee that is evaluating the bill, Crispiano Adames saying, “there is no fear when you try to do well for the health of your people.”

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