Culture Wars Tuesday in Panama

AN medical marijuana
There was little opposition and only a few questions were addressed at the committee hearings. Photo by the Asamblea Nacional.

Medical marijuana extract sails through, LGBT rights bashed on the same day

by Eric Jackson

Unless President Varela has an objection and issues a veto, people with a variety of ailments will soon be able to get prescriptions for liquid cannabis extract. At other time and places this issue has been the stuff of bitter battles, generally with fundamentalist preachers and “get tough on crime” demagouges in the opposition, with patients, physicians and potheads hoping to get a foot in the door in favor. But those battles have been fought and people with conditions like glaucoma and epilepsy have been able to get some relief without any noteworthy crime waves as a result.

In Panama the pressure to legalize medical marijuana has come from patients and physicians. The legislation was sponsored by José Luis Castillo, president of the National Assembly’s Labor Committee. Early in the legislative process the committee received an opinion from the United Nations drug control agency, warning that medical marijuana leads people to disregard the dangers of smoking marijuana for recreational use. The Colegio Nacional de Farmaceuticos, the nation’s main pharmacists’ group, did not object to the law but opined that under present laws liquid marijuana extract could be put on the same schedule with a number of other drugs that are not legally available without a prescription. Psychiatrists dismissed stereotypical fears, while other physicians who treat more than 100 different conditions supported the change. The big boost, however, was from parents of children who have severe epileptic seizures that are best controlled with cannabis.

Was it to allay fears or to distribute economic benefits? Committee member Crispiano Adames got assurances that liquid cannabis will not be legally produced in Panama — no cash crop for farmers, no local manufacturing, another line of business for the medicine importers. And on March 6 the legislation unanimously sailed through the Labor Committee before a large crowd, none of whom seemed to be protesters. It is expected to pass the full National Assembly without a problem and be sent to the president for his signature or veto.

“Queers and dykes have no rights: grasp that, deviant.” A comment from La Estrella by one of the supports of the religious right’s hate march.

That afternoon a coalition of church group held their “March Against Gender Ideology.” So what is “gender ideology?” It’s a right-wing caricature, not an actual belief system that anyone advocates by that name. But central to the caricature is that notion that gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people have rights. The hot-button issue was whether same-sex couples have a right to marry, which is before Panama’s Supreme Court and which was recently supported in a decision by the Inter-American Human Rights Court. That latter court is by treaty the tribunal of last resort for criminal cases coming out of Panama, but its decisions in civil cases are persuasive rather than binding in Panama.

With buses coming in from churches and church schools from several provinces, a crowd of several thousand people was mobilized. The Evangelical politicians who are running for office as independents or trying to put a new party on the ballot emphasized that it really wasn’t a march against anybody or anything — something belied by the signs and banners that people were carrying. The Catholic hierarchy just limited it to a restatement of church doctrine that marriage is about a man and a woman. Some of the Catholics expressed disappointment with President Varela, who is also Catholic, for his position that people of the LGBT communities have rights that the government ought to respect. The march was less well attended than the same coalition’s prior events.

Meanwhile, the balance of public commentary was shifting against the religious groups. The anti-gay rhetoric was as strident as ever, but there was less of it and there was more criticism of it than in the past. Much of the criticism of the protesters’ position was also quite strident. This march still outnumbered last year’s Pride march — which was held on a rainy day — but not by all that much. The high court will make its decision and the issue will not end with that, but at a glance it seems that Panamanians are less polarized and emotional about it.

                           One of the gay rights movement’s more positive counterpoints to the march.


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