BRASÍLIA — The Supreme Court of Argentina opened a path this week to decriminalizing the private consumption of illicit drugs, becoming the latest Latin American country to reject punitive policies toward drug use.
The unanimous decision by the Argentine court on Tuesday, which declared unconstitutional the arrest of five youths for possession of a few marijuana cigarettes in 2006, came just days after Mexico’s Congress voted to end the practice of prosecuting people found to be carrying small amounts of illicit drugs, including marijuana.
Brazil, which has some of the stiffest sentences in the region for drug traffickers, essentially decriminalized drug consumption in 2006 when it eliminated prison sentences for users in favor of treatment and community service.
The new laws and court decisions in the region reflect an urgent desire to reject decades of American prescriptions for distinctly Latin American challenges. Countries in the region are seeking to counteract prison overcrowding, a rise in organized crime and rampant drug violence affecting all levels of society, but in particular the poor and the young.
In February, a commission led by three former Latin American presidents issued a scathing report that condemned Washington’s “war on drugs” as a failure and urged the region to adopt drug policies found in some European countries that focus more on treatment than punishment.
“The global consensus on drug policy is cracking, and an increasing number of countries are agreeing that over-reliance on criminal justice as the ‘solution’ to the drug problem is not helpful at best, and is often harmful,” said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Institute's Global Drug Policy Program, based in Warsaw, who advocates for treatment for users rather than prison time.
In Europe, the Netherlands and Switzerland have led the way in decriminalizing possession, and several other countries have followed suit.
The Argentine court decision is consistent with similar decisions by courts in Germany more than a decade ago and in Colombia in the late 1990s.
Latin America is a source of much of the cocaine and marijuana that is distributed throughout North America and Europe. Latin American leaders are struggling with the need to crack down on violent drug traffickers while also trying to stem consumption. Punishing users in Latin America has led to overcrowded prisons and has done little, if anything, to curb overall consumption.
In Mexico, meanwhile, the laws against drug use contributed to another problem by fueling corruption among the police. The change in the law takes the discretion of whether to jail drug users away from police officers, who frequently collected bribes by threatening people with arrest.
The need to resolve the inherent contradictions led to the formation of the commission on drug use and democracy that issued its report in February. The commission, a 17-member group of journalists, academics and others, including three former presidents — César Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil — condemned the American-led “war on drugs” of the past three decades as a “failed war.” It urged countries to reject the “U.S. prohibitionist policies.”
The commission found that drug consumption continued to rise in Latin America while it was stabilizing in North America and Europe. The policy in parts of the European Union of treating drug use as a health problem and focusing on treatment, the report said, “has proved more humane and efficient,” although it said more needed to be done to curb demand in the main drug-consuming countries.
Ms. Malinowska-Sempruch said she believed that it was no coincidence that the Mexican legislature voted for a measure last week that was similar to one passed less than two years ago, but was rejected by the president at the time, Vicente Fox, under pressure from the United States. She said she believed that Latin American countries had been carefully watching the Obama administration and took some early support for the concept of a needle exchange for drug addicts as “a much needed signal for those of us throughout the world who think that drug use is a public health matter.”
“The administration has left more space for people in Latin America to do what has been under discussion there for some time now,” she said.
Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group working to end the war on drugs, said the “prohibitionist approach” to drug control had “wreaked havoc throughout the region, generating crime, violence and corruption on a scale that far exceeds what the United States experienced during alcohol prohibition in the 1920s.”
The Argentine court decision will pave the way for the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to submit a law to Argentina’s Congress that is expected to be similar to the law Mexico’s legislature voted on last week. Mrs. Kirchner has said she favors a less punitive approach to drug use.
In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court in Argentina declared unanimously that the 2006 arrests for marijuana were unconstitutional under the concept of “personal autonomy” protected by the Constitution.
Critics of the decision, including the Roman Catholic Church, said that the decision stretched the “autonomy” concept too far and that it could worsen a public health problem and overstretch the country’s health infrastructure, which struggled badly recently in its response to swine flu.
Argentina has a serious drug problem, but not especially with the use of marijuana. The country has one of the highest per-capita rates of cocaine use in the world and a growing problem with synthetic drugs like Ecstasy. Some parts of the country have also been afflicted by the rapid rise of “paco,” a cheap and highly addictive drug that combines small amounts of cocaine residue with toxic chemicals.
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
August 26, 2009