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The marijuana situation in Latin America, Ecuador, and Cuenca’s expat community; ‘the times they are a changin’

By Sylvan Hardy

Uruguay has become the only country in the world with legal, regulated, recreational-marijuana sales, the world’s first and only state-run marijuana marketplace. An omnibus marijuana law was passed in 2013, of which two major elements have gone into effect.

First, individuals are now allowed to grow up to six plants (17 ounces) at home; second, marijuana clubs of up to 45 individuals can band together to produce marijuana communally (up to 99 plants per year).

The fate of the most controversial aspect of the law — the licensing of farmers for large-scale production, user registration in a national database for the purchase of up tpot 1o nearly one and a half ounces per month, taxation, quality control, and the sale of state-controlled pot to consumers at pharmacies — remains undetermined.

Although Uruguay has taken the lead, many Latin American countries have implemented or are currently considering the decriminalization or outright legalizing of marijuana use. There’s almost universal agreement in Central and South America that current U.S.-led efforts to control illegal
drugs have failed. Often unstated is the feeling among government leaders that Latin America has borne the bloody brunt of the U.S. and Europe’s insatiable drug appetite.

According to Wikipedia, Argentina has decriminalized pot, which is tolerated for private consumption; marijuana is also decriminalized in Colombia (possession up to 22 grams for personal use) and Peru (up to eight grams); and in Chile, possession is still illegal, but medical marijuana has been decriminalized.

In June 2013, Ecuador, too, decriminalized the possession of small amounts (10 grams) of marijuana when the National Council of Control of Narcotic and Psychotropic Drugs (CONSEP) published a table of drug-possession limits.

The rule didn’t constitute a “legalization” of pot (and three other drugs); rather, police were ordered not to make arrests for quantities below the limits listed in the CONSEP table.

As is true all over the world, in Ecuador, the legality or lack thereof of marijuana seems to have little connection to its popularity among users. Marijuana grows year-round in Ecuador, whose climate is favorable for cultivation. Connoisseurs tend to agree that Ecuador’s pot is of medium quality, which is reflected in the price. Purchased from local growers or middlemen, an ounce of low-quality cannabis runs as low as $30, while average-quality costs $50 and high-quality can fetch up to $75.  Notable strains, such as Punto Rojo, Mango, Skunk, and Chola, some of which come from Peru and Colombia, can go as high as $300 an ounce.

Though the growing and selling of cannabis is strictly prohibited, personal use has been widely tolerated during the administration of Presidente Rafael Correa. You can sniff out the pungent aroma of burning cannabis on many streets and public stairways in Cuenca, often in the proximity of police, who aren’t looking to arrest pot smokers.

Expats from North America, many of whom have been smoking weed for decades, manage to find their drug of choice, whether in amounts that are decriminalized or illegal, through small informal networks of friends and fellow pot heads. The deals are almost totally private, though I’ve heard that, at least in one instance, when a gringo got a little too close to some Ecuadorian pot dealers known to the police, he was quietly warned to take his business elsewhere.

The latest wrinkle in the expat-community’s pot consumption centers around “bonbons,” or cannabis-infused chocolates. Recipes vary from kitchen to kitchen, of course, but the basic idea is to grind the pot finely in a blender, then combine it with melted butter and cook it at a low temperature (a slow cooker is ideal) for 30 to 60 minutes (or longer); add melted chocolate, stir well, pour into a chocolate mold, and refrigerate. A pound of butter, a pound of chocolate, and an ounce of pot will make roughly 100 bonbons. Other ingredients might include pure vanilla or mint extract, heavy cream, and nuts.

bonbons One bonbon enthusiast claims that Cuenca has  become a fundamentally different place since the  introduction of marijuana chocolates a year or so  ago.

 “In some surprising ways, Cuenca now reminds me  of Greenwich Village in the sixties and seventies,”  he says. “At any given time, perhaps a hundred  expats are floating, literally, around town, high on bonbons, emitting the mellowest vibrations, which, to my mind anyway, go a long way toward counteracting the aggressiveness that’s common to alcohol drinkers.

“And, of course, behind closed doors, another hundred or so are emitting other kinds of vibes. Because bonbons are ingested and metabolized by the liver, they’re converted into an active metabolite that causes a more intense high and stronger body effects. Beyond that, I’ll leave it up to your imagination.”

About the Author

Sylvan Hardy divides his time between Cuenca, the U.S. and Ethiopia. He is a former Southeast Asia news correspondent and columnist for several British newspapers.

  • Jane

    They call it “dope” for a reason. I don’t understand why people want to be dumber than they are.

    • paulvonhartmann

      Because it doesn’t make people dumb. Maybe you should try it before you judge others.

      • Jack Woods


  • Julius Talbot

    The most recent and prevailing opinion in South America is that the War on Drugs has bankrupt them for a problem that is not theirs. The money spent in the last 45 years would have served their people better if it had been put into roads or healthcare. For example, marijuana usage is 200 times more an issue in the Western world than iin Ecuador.

    The active ingredient in marijuana is, indeed, easily butter soluble. The recipe in the article is unnecessarily tedious. No need to do anything but slow boil the stuff with water and butter for 20 minutes, strain and then refrigerate until the butter solidifies again. The butter can now be used anyway you would use butter, but most often in cookies, brownies or chocolates. For the growing group who use marijuana under prescription for medical reasons, (it makes many cancers’ pain bearable) digesting marijuana is a much healthier and easier method than smoking the stuff. (ugh!)

    BEWARE. Though marijuana is essentially harmless, unregulated marijuana can often be very unhealthy. Dealers will often soak it in all sorts of nasty stuff to increase its apparent weight. For example, mercury is a favorite. And mercury, eaten or smoked (mercuric oxide) is very toxic. That is why users are forced to grow their own. Their goal is their own safety,

    The article alludes to an excellent cure marijuana can provide many people, especially in a food format. It is an excellent substitute for alcohol, either for addicts or social drinkers. It has none of the vertigo, various sicknesses and body damage that comes along with drinking and it does not produce anger and agressivity. Most importantly, cannabis is not physically addictive as regular alcohol usage is. (Though there are those who can become life-style habituated to it.) So, many people use it to wean themselves off alcohol and then go on to stop their marijuana with ease.

    The sad thing about the article is that it largely ignores a discussion of the more potent and prevalent expat problem, heavy drinking. There is no secret that heavy drinking is more of an expat issue than marijuana will ever be. It has shaped the perception of expats. It is very sad (and curious) that no one is brave enough to write about that.


    Pot should be legal, and alcohol should be illegal.

  • This story took me right back to the ’70s, which is when I went to college. Loved the recipes for bonbons!

  • Patrick

    Far-Out , Man !

  • Gee, now that more people have the recipe maybe more expats can use it…. duh.

  • John Howard

    Fireymom: “should” is the most addictive substance known to man. Busybodies and powerlusters are everywhere, wrecking civilization because, in their “should”-induced mental haze, they actually believe they know what should and should not be forced on everyone else. Since none of them can agree, the result is to encourage everyone to advocate forcing everything on everyone else. The social wreckage from all that violence continues to victimize everyone. There is no known cure for should except individualism, but where’s the fun in just minding your own business when there’s a whole big world out there just ripe for more meddling.

  • Aleck Inglis


    If your experience of marijauna made you feel stupid, that would be very odd. It could be that your stock was doctored. On the other hand, if you are making your assertions without experience, the condition could be inherent. These subjects are best discussed with facts rather than propaganda from others.

    Dope is an American term. It is used to refer to heroin. It was only used to refer to marijuana in the US for a short period after that government classified both heroin and marijuana as the same legally, though there was no basis for that chemically, biologically or medically. A government can call a flatbed Ford an elephant, but it does not make it true. Heroin is an opiate, and will indeed leave users in a dazed, even deadly state. No one has ever died from marijuana.

    Marijuana has become the most widely used drug on the planet, aside from alcohol. But that is saying a lot. 3.8% of the world admit to have taken marijuana, at least once in their lives. That compares to 24% of the world who will admit to binge drinking at least once in the last month. Our hospitals, insurance companies and governments put out trillions dealing with the health and other costs related to alcohol consumption. No one has ever died from marijuana. Its only costs are in chasing and incarcerating those who serve or take it. Would logic not suggest we do the same with alcohol consumers?

    Of course, that cannot happen. The best we can hope for is to tempt drinkers to a less costly and safer habit. Marijuana is easy to grow, (it is in truth a very stubborn weed that grows anywhere and in any climate.And one tour of today’s England or many other western nations and you will come back PROUD and relieved that US young people have chosen marijuana over alcohol.

    In case you are wondering, I do not presently drink alcohol or take marijuana in any form. If I am addicted to anything, it is my wife and a lively discussion. 😉 I prefer to focus on what is possible.

  • John

    Really? You used the phrase “pot heads?” Let’s be a little more objective in our language in this day and age about this topic.

    • paulvonhartmann

      “It takes a ‘head to get ahead.”

  • gin arnold

    I have been smoking for 40 years, and very short of 73, and every doctor I have had is aware that I smoke. Tobacco should be illegal but if you choose to smoke, that is your business, and mine to smoke my choice. The only reason pot is illegal in the States is—————follow the money.

  • Bill Easley

    I see lots of opinion stated here, but none on “follow the money”. When I use the “follow the money” term, I mean the larger financial picture. Stop to think about how much is spent to support the health care, law enforcement, prisons, and the governments that manage the alcohol and drug activities and the results of the continued heavy use of tobacco and alcohol. These are heavily taxed and most people don’t know how to make their own booze or cigarettes. Anyone can grow marijuana and harvest it. In short, huge and profitable industries have grown up around tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drug use and these need to be both protected and supported. Pot is the “outsider” that reduces the profit of these massive industries. Something cheap and harmless (like marijuana) is a dangerous financial impostor.

  • Bob

    Put’s Cuenca “High” life in a whole new light. 🙂

  • hotspringfreak

    “It’ll wreck ‘yer Lungs Jim” – Werewolf of London, Warren Zevon

  • Ken Merena

    Bravisimo, Mr. Howard, for your brilliant and insightful comments:

    “John Howard
    January 25, 2015

    Fireymom: “should” is the most addictive substance known to man. Busybodies and powerlusters are everywhere, wrecking civilization because, in their “should”-induced mental haze, they actually believe they know what should and should not be forced on everyone else. Since none of them can agree, the result is to encourage everyone to advocate forcing everything on everyone else. The social wreckage from all that violence continues to victimize everyone. There is no known cure for should except individualism, but where’s the fun in just minding your own business when there’s a whole big world out there just ripe for more meddling.”

    As a Libertarian and free thinker, I applaud your attitude. I’ve never smoked dope, done drugs or taken a drink of alcohol in my life, but may my soul rot in hell if I ever try to influence you or anybody else in that regard.

    One of my latest pet peeves is the other two rags that are published for expats here and both of whom have the word Gringo in their titles. Their pitiful attempts at censorship and the requirement that all posts be Minnesota Nice is sickening and they are truly a reflection of their ownership, which is dull, uneducated and pitiful. I’m glad that Cuenca High Life seems to appeal to a higher intellect and their ownership seems to reflect this as well.

    Kenneth A. Merena, Ph.D.

  • Contrarian

    My father used to say, “Anything the government touches, turns to shit.” Dealing with addictions in the USA fits. I used to wonder about 2 things – why someone would put ‘stuff’ into their body and the hypocrisy of the drunks beating up on the ‘pot heads’ (yes, not objective; deal!). Then I started drinking. I also stopped on my own. I understand the need many have to put ‘stuff’ into their bodies. I neither condone nor .deter their behaviors until I get effected.

    But, as someone said, ‘follow the money’. The expectation of men to stop by the bar after work, the millions spent on booze advertisements and try to have a party without booze. Then we complain about the drunkenness, the tens of thousands killed by drunk drivers. We tried prohibition – didn’t work. The politicians who get large contributions from the alcohol beverage industry won’t do anything. And the hypocrisy of drunks complaining about druggies.

    Highest amount addictions in the USA – medical professionals and prescription drugs. Think the medical insurance cartel will allow anything to be done about that. Not a chance.

    Locally, I think it best is to let gringos do anything they want to reduce their stress. Otherwise they will revert to their other addictions – gossiping and complaining.

  • Phil

    God gives us explisit use of Marijuana in the Bible at Genesis 1,29. Maybe not to smoke it though, GO BONBONS.

  • JC

    Funny that those with the least experience are the most vocal opponents…

  • They have the same problem with sex…or countries and cultures they have never visited.

  • Tamara Scallion

    Dope is something straighters call it or the doesnt make you dumber and dont hate just because you dont like it..I’m sure you have no problem with your martini or wine ,which by the way hosts a lot more side affects and physical/ mental issues!!! Jane.

  • Martica Leonard

    Jane, it’s also called medical marijuana for a reason…..helping countless numbers of people with horrific medical conditions that Big Pharma does not begin to address.

  • Tom

    Having just arrived in Cuenca 8 days ago I still don’t know where to get my medicine ( I am a medical MJ user,with license) it seems to be a little sketchy as there isn’t a dispensary available. Can doctors in Cuenca authorize MJ purchases? Thanks,tom

  • Isabella Jones

    John Howard – very well said John. It’s a pity your principles aren’t known and practiced much more widely than they are. The amount of stress and violence all over the world would go down exponentially if they were.

    • Tom

      I posted a query jul 10 re mj but no advice yet,so will try here.Unlike Uraguay which having come out of the closet,you know where they stand.what about Equador? What is the LAW regarding personal use of mj?
      Thank you.tom

  • QuanellEleven

    “Literally floating ” around town? Diction errors are not tolerated! Go to your room!! I am guessing that Jane is not too much fun at parties

  • Rocio Mata

    drugs do not produce seeds, plants do, we have initiated in this country the process to de criminalize the plant, and we are going forward, as with all regulatory processes it is slow, and lots of docs and tedious paperwork, but the point here is IT IS BEING DONE, and I am grateful to the President for that!