Tue, Feb 17, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Argentina debates softer policy on drugs

While the government favors decriminalizing the personal use of illicit substances, the rising consumption of Ecstasy has raised alarm bells

By Alexei Barrioneuvo  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, VILLA GESELL, ARGEN

As night gave way to dawn, the dancing only intensified. The DJ 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 Fernandez 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,” 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 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 7am 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 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 US, a 2006 survey by the UN showed. 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 US-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 healthcare system,” not “drug buyers in an illegal market.”

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