October 15, 2014 / 4:06 PM / 6 years ago

Guatemala may weigh softer drug punishments in liberalization push

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala will weigh easing punishments for minor narcotics-related offenses as part of a push to liberalize drug policy and explore regulating production of opium poppies and marijuana for medical use, President Otto Perez said.

Shortly after taking office at the start of 2012, Perez, a conservative retired army general, surprised many of his Latin American peers by proposing legalization as a means of curbing the power of criminal gangs and the deaths they cause.

Central America is one of the most violent regions in the Americas and Honduras, which like its neighbor Guatemala is a staging post for drug gangs moving their product to consumers in the United States, has the highest homicide rate on the planet.

“We have 17,000 prisoners in our jails. Many of them are linked to drug trafficking. Some of them are indeed criminals. And there are some who are in for minimal amounts of consumption or possession,” Perez told Reuters this week in an interview.

“So I think there are steps we could take time to analyze,” he added, when asked about the possibility of easing sentences to lighten the strain on Guatemala’s overstretched penal system.

As of August 2013, Guatemala’s prison population was 2-1/2 times higher than its official capacity, according to figures published by the International Center for Prison Studies.

A government-backed commission delivered an interim report on the president’s legalization proposal in September and Perez said the final recommendations should be ready by March or the second quarter of next year.

Any proposed changes to the law will then require approval from Guatemala’s Congress.

Guatemala, with Honduras and El Salvador, is seeking U.S. support to curb a wave of illegal immigration of their nationals to the United States, and Perez’s legalization plan initially met with clear rejection from the United States.

“There was a very strong and rapid reaction at the start,” Perez said. “But over time we’ve been seeing what we could call a flexibilization of the U.S. position in saying ‘we don’t agree with the legalization issue, but we do agree to sit down and discuss it and look at what steps we can take jointly’.”

Some U.S. states have been at the forefront of drug liberalization, with Washington and Colorado legalizing possession and sale of marijuana in 2012.

Guatemala’s government is considering regulating the production of marijuana and poppies on the border with Mexico for medicinal uses, Perez said.

Opium poppies are used to make opium, heroin and pharmaceutical drugs including morphine and codeine.

Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu; Editing by Simon Gardner and W Simon

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