VILLA GESELL, Argentina — As night gave way to dawn, the dancing only intensified. The D.J. built toward the furious climax, when columns of fire shot into the air and confetti rained down on the screaming crowd.
“Here, Ecstasy is everywhere,” said Mateus Loiecomo, 19, referring to the drug that helped fuel the long night of dancing for a number of the revelers. He waved an arm at dozens of young people exiting with large sunglasses, their hair soaked with sweat. “But everybody should be allowed to take whatever drug they want,” he said. “It’s their life, right?”
Argentina is adopting an increasingly liberal attitude toward recreational drug use, with the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner moving to decriminalize the personal use of illicit substances and give the country one of the more tolerant drug-consumption policies in the world.
“I don’t like it when people condemn someone who has an addiction as if he were a criminal, as if he were a person who should be persecuted,” Mrs. Kirchner said in August. “The ones that should be persecuted are the ones who sell the substances, who give it away, who traffic in it.”
That attitude is shared across Latin America, where governments or high courts in Ecuador, Colombia and Mexico have also recently moved to decriminalize small-scale possession for personal use.
Even so, the rising consumption of Ecstasy in Argentina has largely caught officials by surprise, helping ignite a heated debate in recent weeks over the government’s new drug policy.
Several provincial governors, as well as Mrs. Kirchner’s own vice president, have spoken out against the proposal, which may go before Congress before the end of this month.
Also due soon is a decision from the Argentine Supreme Court on whether to uphold a lower court’s ruling invalidating a 20-year-old law imposing criminal penalties on drug users.
Meanwhile, a dispute has also erupted between the justice minister, who is promoting the idea of decriminalization, and the director of the government’s drug control and addiction prevention agency, who expresses skepticism, leading to much finger-pointing over who is to blame for the country’s drug problems.
Even the partygoers cannot agree. Sitting outside a club at 7 a.m. after a long night of dancing in this resort city on the Atlantic coast, Federico de la Rosa, 20, said that the law would be “way too liberal” if the policy was changed. “Teenagers would not have any problems scoring drugs,” said Mr. de la Rosa, an architecture student. “To me, that’s not a good thing.”
Argentina already has the highest per-capita use of cocaine in the Americas after the United States, according to a 2006 survey by the United Nations. The drug paco — a highly addictive chemical byproduct of cocaine production — has in just a few short years become a deadly plague of the poor here.
But throughout Latin America, prison overcrowding is helping to soften policies on drug use, said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the program on drugs at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, a research organization. So, too, is the notion that traditional approaches to limiting drug consumption and trafficking have not been working.
Last week, a commission led by three former Latin American presidents issued a report condemning the American-led “war on drugs” and saying that policies based on “the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results.” The commission recommended that drug addicts be considered “patients of the health care system,” not “drug buyers in an illegal market.”
In Argentina, 70 percent of cases resulting in prison sentences in 2006 involved users arrested for having small amounts of drugs for personal use, said Monica Cuñarro, an independent lawyer who leads the Justice Ministry committee studying the change in the drug law.
At the same time, Ms. Cuñarro argued, the nation’s anti-drug agency have been ineffective in slowing the drug trade, while dealers and big traffickers evaded jail because of corruption among the nation’s police forces.
José Ramón Granero, who leads the government’s drug control division, defended his agency’s actions, arguing that a proposal to crack down on chemical precursors used in drug production had been stalled in the Justice Ministry since 2005.
He also played down accusations against him relating to the discovery in December of about 18 pounds of cocaine in a van sent by the agency to a shop to be reupholstered. He said he thought the drugs had not been detected when the van was initially seized in a raid that found more than 50 pounds of cocaine in the vehicle.
Recriminations aside, rising Ecstasy consumption in Argentina has taken a toll on users. The government does not keep records on the number of deaths related to its use, but the drug appears to have been involved in a handful of fatalities in the past three years and is suspected in several others, Mr. Granero said.
The connection to the electronic music world is so strong here that anti-drug campaigners say some organizers of raves offer two kinds of admission: a regular entrance pass, and a more expensive “plus” pass that includes an Ecstasy pill.
Mr. Granero said festival organizers had obstructed government efforts to monitor such events. In 2006, organizers of the annual Creamfields festival in Buenos Aires — the largest one-day electronic dance event in the world — rejected his request to allow two hospitals to set up emergency tents inside. Instead, the organizers set up their own health care station, he said, a decision the organizers did not deny.
“No one except them knows what happened inside,” Mr. Granero said.
By ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO
Published: February 14, 2009
New York Times
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