By Mario A. Flores
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In what is the latest blow to America’s “War on Drugs,” the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that possession of small amounts of marihuana, meant for personal use and that do not represent a threat to someone else, is no longer a crime, making this nation the latest Latin American country to reject punitive policies toward drug use.
The Argentine Court’s unanimous decision, which found unconstitutional the arrest of five youths for possession of three marijuana cigarettes, came only days after Mexico’s Congress voted to end the practice of prosecuting people found to be carrying small amounts of illicit drugs, including marijuana.
Mexico now has one of the world’s most liberal laws for drug users after eliminating jail time for small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and amphetamine. The decision has resulted in some friction between Mexico and the United States, considering that Mexico’s northern neighbor contributes millions for the purchase of equipment destined to the fight against the drug cartels.
Argentine legislators vowed to start working immediately on a bill that would modify current drug laws to reflect this week’s Supreme Court decision and expect to submit it to Congressional vote by the end of this year.
If passed, the Argentine law would be part of a growing trend across Latin America to treat drug use as a public health problem and make room in overcrowded prisons for violent traffickers rather than small-time users.
The decriminalization of drug usage in Mexico and Argentina comes at a time when a respected group of former Latin American presidents have been calling for the legalization of marihuana.
Former presidents Fernando Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia led a 17-member group of journalists, academics and others to form the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which concluded earlier this year that the “war on drugs” strategy pursued in the region over the past three decades had been “a failed war, negative and ineffective.”
The study called for an urgent “in-depth revision of current drug policies” in Latin America, including decriminalizing possession of marihuana.
Brazil basically decriminalized drug consumption in 2006 when it eliminated prison sentences for users in favor of treatment and community service but imposes some of the stiffest sentences in the region to drug traffickers.
Peru, the world’s second largest producer of coca leaves and cocaine, allows small-scale possession for individual use. Venezuela is more restrictive albeit small amounts of cocaine and marihuana possession are not a crime but administrative penalties can be imposed. Uruguay is holding presidential elections in October and the legalization of marihuana is expected to be a campaign issue.
However, a large group of nations (Paraguay, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Chile) remains to decide whether to lift penalties in cases of possession of drugs for personal use.
Countries in the region hope that new laws help 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.
Argentina has one of the highest per-capita rates of cocaine use in the world and a growing problem with synthetic drugs like Ecstasy. But the use of marijuana is not an especially serious problem in the country.
For more information, please see:
The New York Times – Latin America Weighs Less Punitive Path to Curb Drug Use – 26 August 2009
The Washington Post – Mexico’s new drug use law worries US police – 26 August 2009
The Washington Post – Argentina decriminalizes small-scale marijuana use – 25 April 2009
La Nacion – América latina, más permisiva con los ´porros´ – 27 April 2009