Since August, Latin American nations have begun to reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of controlled and illegal substances. The move is an attempt to shift enforcement attention to catching big dog narcotics traffickers instead of weekend warriors. Both Argentina and Mexico recently passed relaxed drug possession laws. Last March, an appeals court in São Paulo, Brazil, ruled that having drugs for personal use was no longer a criminal offense. Ecuador is also poised to join its neighbors in decriminalizing minor drug infractions. The trend is not an original one. European countries like Portugal favor milder penalties for drug users, as do a handful of states in the US, including, most recently, Massachusetts. But decriminalizing small amounts of drugs for personal use is new for Latin America—the geographic region caught up in much of the world’s drug production and trafficking.
Former presidents from Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico have been working hard on this controversial topic. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy studied the issue for a full year, finally releasing its recommendations in February. The commission’s report proposes a softer strategy of drug decriminalization for personal use (primarily marijuana), and a change in the tactics on the so-called ‘war on drugs.’ First, the commission argues that the best way to reduce drug consumption is not through jail time for small offenders, but instead through prevention and education programs. The point is to treat drug addiction as a public health concern rather than as a criminal offense.
According to the authors, enforcement should focus on organized crime, not prosecuting addicts and occasional users. The report recognizes that Latin American nations are working with limited resources and argues that it is more economically efficient to concentrate on disrupting the black market. Doing so would cut the unnecessary expenditures of putting small time crooks in jail.
De facto to de jure
At the end of August, Mexico discreetly decriminalized the possession of small amounts of various narcotics. It is now unconstitutional to throw someone in jail if he or she has five grams or less of marijuana (which is equivalent to about four joints), half a gram of cocaine (about four lines), fifty milligrams of heroin, and forty milligrams of methamphetamine. But Mexico is not trying to be the Amsterdam of the Americas. Instead, the government anticipates a slow in the flow of illegal drug trafficking within borders. The Los Angeles Times reports that President Felipe Calderón believes that by removing some penalties, law enforcement resources will be freed up and can focus attention on cracking down on big dealers and drug lords. Four days after Mexico’s new drug legislation passed, Argentina’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that possession of marijuana is no longer a punishable crime if it is used in private and does not harm others. The case that led to the decision involved the arrest of a group of five young men who were carrying around a few joints in their pockets. Once a supporter of jail time for marijuana offenders, Supreme Court Justice Carlos Fayt ruled in the defendants’ favor. He told Argentina’s Telam news agency that “reality” changed his mind.
Easing up while cracking down
But while more relaxed drug laws are ostensibly paired with crackdowns on narcotics traffickers, opponents of these softer policies contend the drug cartels will see an increase in profits. Some officials from US border states worry softer Mexican narcotics laws could lead to an increase in American drug tourism. The vendors and merchants on Tijuana’s main tourist drag, Avenida Revolución, say they do not expect a spike in drug tourism. “People who want drugs have always been able to just go down the street and buy them,” Adan Cárdenas, a waiter at an all-you-candrink-for-$15 dive called Mystery Bar, told the Los Angeles Times. In fact, tourism in Mexico is down across the board—due not only to drug-related violence, but also the recession and the recent H1N1 flu epidemic. No one predicts American tourists will flood the streets looking to get their fix. Proponents assert that decriminalization will not create a drug free-for-all. Under the new laws, those using in public will still be sent to the police station.
Until now, high levels of drug-related violence have made it politically impossible for certain Latin American countries to pass decriminalization laws. But in Mexico, the public has largely accepted the new measures, in part because of concerns about the rise of drug use within the country. But even while Latin America’s drug policies are changing, the region arguably still needs the support of the US. So far, Washington’s silence on the decriminalization measures implies tacit acceptance of the new direction in drug policy. When visiting Mexico in July, the US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said he would be taking a “wait and see” approach. With or without Washington’s backing, those soft on drug policy do have political support. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, recently released findings on how drug decriminalization has affected Portugal, which had one of the highest levels of hard-drug use in Europe. In 2001, in an attempt to curb rampant drug-use, the country became the first European nation to drop all criminal penalties for personal possession of drugs. The Cato paper shows that five years after decriminalization, drug use among teens has declined and rates of HIV infections have also dropped. While there is no formula to fit every country, these findings suggest potentially positive outcomes for Latin American countries choosing to adopt softer drug possession laws.
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