SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Dozens of people marched Saturday through Puerto Rico's capital amid growing support for a recent bill filed by a former police chief that aims to legalize marijuana for personal use, unleashing an unprecedented debate in this conservative U.S. territory.
The crowd marched to the seaside Capitol building, where Sen. Miguel Pereira filed a bill this week stating it should be legal for those 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana. The former federal prosecutor and corrections secretary said possession cases are costing the government money, noting that 80 percent of inmates are serving time for non-violent crimes.
His comments have polarized the island, with some legislators demanding his resignation.
"It's outrageous that someone who was elected by the people tries to use his position to cause addiction, sicken and destroy Puerto Rican society," Sen. Itzamar Pena said.
Critics say the proposal would further fuel violence on an island of 3.7 million people that reported a record 1,117 killings in 2011, with police saying that 70 percent of killings are drug-related. Others expressed concern that police, teachers and doctors would smoke while working.
"This measure has to be studied extremely carefully," Sen. Jose Perez Rosa said. "It's not like alcohol, where acceptable levels (of use) exist."
Currently, those charged with marijuana possession can face up to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Justice Secretary Luis Sanchez Betances did not say whether he favored Pereira's measure, but he said the government should find alternatives to the current law.
"This opens a public debate," he said.
Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla echoed a similar sentiment in a press conference this week.
"I don't have a problem with an open debate about the possibilities, benefits or drawbacks of such a measure," he said, adding that the issue is not a priority for his administration.
Last year, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for those over 21. The law, however, bans the public use of marijuana.
Puerto Rico joins a handful of other Caribbean islands, including Jamaica and St. Lucia, where there has been a push to legalize marijuana use.
In Jamaica, government officials previously reviewed recommendations to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. The proposal has the backing of several church leaders, but it has not gained traction on an island that remains the Caribbean's largest pot exporter to the U.S.
In St. Lucia, supporters also have spent more than a decade lobbying the government without success to endorse a commercial hemp project.