Latin America On Its Way To Legalizing Drugs, Experts Say

By Dialogo
August 10, 2009

Latin America is headed towards the decriminalization of drug possession for personal consumption, according to experts and officials who took part in a regional conference in Buenos Aires. Those attending the 1st Latin American Conference on Drug Policy also said that legislative reforms are being designed to give smaller sentences "to small traffickers, and to create policies that minimize harm" by encouraging addicts who can't quit to come into the health system. They also warned that the war on drugs "did not achieve its goal," since Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, which together produce all the cocaine in the world, "could not manage in 10 years to reduce the area under cultivation," according to a communique released at the end of the meeting, sponsored by the Pan-American Health Organization. Brazilian lawmaker Paulo Teixeira said that his country's current anti-drug law "increases the harm to users, because once in jail they get involved with organized crime." The legislator, originator of Brazil's first bill to "reduce the harm" of drug consumption, presented a study saying that 84 percent of those sentenced between 2006-2008 for drug possession in that country were not armed and 50 percent of those convicted for marijuana trafficking had less than 100 grams (1/2 ounce) of the substance. Teixeira said that the ruling Workers Party will submit a bill next month that establishes "a democratic model" for drugs, with the legalization of consumption, alternative penalties for small-scale drug dealing, the inclusion of a strategy for harm reduction and authorization for growing and marketing marijuana in small quantities. For her part, Ecuador's deputy planning secretary, Michelle Artieda, said that her country is in the process of debating a drug bill that modifies the current legislation, which dates back to 1992 and "violates the principle of legality." During the meeting, organized by the Argentine association Intercambios, the Ecuadorian official said that many of those detained in her country on drug charges "were carrying less than 2 kilos (4 1/2 pounds)" of narcotics. Artieda also spoke about Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's decision to pardon 2,221 people who were arrested for carrying small amounts of drugs and those known as "mules." Dionicio Nuñez Tangara, coordinador of the Bolivian Coca and Sovereignty organization, regretted that under his country's existing legislation, "coca-leaf growers are the same as drug traffickers," and went into detail about the Evo Morales government's initiative to industrialize the growing of that plant. Bolivian law permits the cultivation of 12,000 hectares (29,629 acres) of coca for legal traditional uses, and a similar arrangement prevails in neighboring Peru. Bolivian President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian who rose to prominence as the leader of a coca-growers union, came to office in January 2006 pledging to redirect anti-drug efforts from coca eradication to cocaine interdiction. Meanwhile Peruvian expert Hugo Cabieses warned that "under the pretext of a war on drugs, the borders of the region's countries are being militarized." "In 1992 the hectares (acres) of coca grown in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia were 11,500 (28,395), but by 2004 they had been reduced to 11,000 (27,160). These plans (to militarize borders) do not expand democracy, they restrict it," he said. The Argentine government defended the legalization of drug possession for personal consumption and said that it awaits "almost impatiently" a verdict by the Supreme Court that would make criminal punishment for a drug user unconstitutional. Legislative reforms in the matter of drug use sparked controversy in several Latin American countries, the region that leads the world in cocaine production. The conference, held at the seat of the Argentine Congress, was also sponsored by the British and Dutch Embassies in Buenos Aires, as well as by the Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy.