Silvia Inchaurraga is Director of the Drug Abuse and AIDS Advanced Studies Center at the University of Rosario in Argentina. After having done post-graduate work exploring harm reduction programs in Spain and Holland, Inchaurraga returned to Argentina where she is now president of the Harm Reduction Association of Argentina (http://www.arda.iwarp.com), executive secretary of the Latin American Harm Reduction Network (http://www.relard.net), and Member of the International Council of the International Harm Reduction Association (http://www.ihra.net). She is editor of the recently published anthology, "Drugs: Between Harm and the Failure of Prohibition -- New Perspectives on the Decriminalization-Legalization Debate." DRCNet interviewed Inchaurraga Thursday via e-mail from Argentina.

Week Online: You are the president of the Harm Reduction Association of Argentina (ARDA). What is ARDA's work and what is the nature of the drug problem in Argentina?

Silvia Inchaurraga: ARDA is a national organization working in the field of harm reduction. We are very concerned by the health-related harms of drug use, such as AIDS. About 40% of AIDS cases are among intravenous drug users, and some studies have shown that in big cities like Rosario, over 60% of intravenous drugs users have HIV and Hepatitis C infection. The main problem here is cocaine injection, because of the frequency of the injections. But we are also now seeing the "poverty drugs," crack and freebase -- a phenomenon clearly related to drug prohibition -- with the related social harms of isolation, exclusion, criminalization and prison. Here in Argentina, even personal use is illegal. (Article 14 of Drug Control Law 23.737 punishes possession of drugs for personal use.) Some people who advocate for harm reduction in Argentina are not speaking about reforming the drug laws because it is more acceptable to speak about health and AIDS, and it can always be a problem to support decriminalization.

ARDA is developing harm reduction programs in several Argentine cities targeted at such groups as the marginal populations in the shantytowns, prisoners, and the young people who attend rock concerts and raves. In early 2000, ARDA sponsored the first program in Argentina to deliver injection equipment with the government. We also provide harm reduction materials containing information about the harms related to the drug laws -- what to do if you are arrested, what are your rights, and how to avoid police brutality and corruption, such as providing false testimony to keep people in detention. Sadly, these are a frequent phenomenon.

WOL: What is current Argentine drug policy? Is it based on the prohibitionist model, as here in the United States?

Inchaurraga: Yes, Argentina has been following the North American "war on drugs" model. And as in North America, it has failed here, too. Drug use is on the increase, along with its associated problems. In Argentina, even the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use is punished. Coerced, abstinence-based treatment is a sad lie. Our official policy has not changed under a number of governments, and we have had decades of prohibition, with the war against drugs and the war against drug users. Our officials and policy-makers and our drug agency, SEDRONAR, frequently argue that "we cannot modify international agreements," but that too is a lie. There are other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay, that do not punish possession of drugs for personal use. We must make people here understand that drugs should not be a criminal justice issue.

WOL: ARDA is part of the Latin American Harm Reduction Network (RELARD), a group designed to advance harm reduction policies. Who are the other members, and is there a continental focus?

Inchaurraga: RELARD is a network founded in 1998 with the goal of strengthening harm reduction initiatives in the region. Curiously enough, only Argentina and Brazil -- the most prohibitionist countries in terms of policy 00 have needle exchange programs. Progress has been very difficult because of the "war on drugs" mentality in the region -- just look at Plan Colombia! -- and the idea that repression is the best legislative response and abstinence the best public health response. RELARD now includes member groups in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Uruguay, as well as drug user networks in Argentina and Brazil. The latter groups advocate in defense of drug users' rights.

WOL: Mexico is on the other end of Latin America. Do you have many contacts there?

Inchaurraga: One member of the RELARD executive board is from Mexico. She works for the Programa Companeros (Comrades Program) in Ciudad Juarez. We believe the exchange of information between Mexico and Argentina is crucial, because we share not only the same language but also some of the same problems related to prohibition, problems that show Mexico and Argentina alike that prohibition is causing more harm than the drugs themselves.

WOL: And do you have connections with harm reduction groups in the United States?

Inchaurraga: A delegation from RELARD attended the December National Harm Reduction Conference in Seattle sponsored by the Harm Reduction Coalition. We had a Latin American delegation of six persons from three different countries -- two from ARDA, one from the Bolivian network, one from the Argentine drug users' networks and two from the Brazilian user networks. In Seattle, we were able to make contact with many Latin Americans living in the US and working in harm reduction. We have been working with Allan Clear, Donald Grove, and Alvaro and Paula Santiago of the Harm Reduction Coalition based in New York City to strengthen our work. One example of the cooperation is that they will assist us with one of our ARDA harm reduction programs. We plan an intervention at rave parties, in which we will provide kits to test the purity of ecstasy. Those kits, available in the US, are not currently available here. We also have other good friends in the US, such as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance.

WOL: You are receiving funding from the Tides Foundation for one of your programs. Can you tell us about that?

Inchaurraga: Our National Decriminalization Campaign is partially supported by the Tides Foundation. We began with a document collecting signatures from all around the country in favor of repealing the possession articles of Drug Control Law 23.737. This occurred in the context of our involvement in the Million Marijuana March. The first time Argentina participated was last year, with marchers here in Rosario asking for the decriminalization of the possession of all drugs, an end to marijuana arrests, and scientific research on medical marijuana. Our campaign with Tides Foundation support is currently developing workshops with journalists and policymakers and judges, and we are also developing a "Harm Reduction Manual on Drug Law-Related Harms."

WOL: ARDA criticizes prohibitionist drug policy. Do you favor a policy of decriminalization or legalization or what?

Inchaurraga: For ARDA, decriminalization is a key issue of the harm reduction field. Over 90% of drugs offenses are related to personal use, jails are crowded with drug users, and drugs users are avoiding the health system because of fear of prosecution. We have a high profile in the region as advocates for decriminalization. We are also involved in advocating for the legalization of marijuana for medical use, as is RELARD. But there are few voices in favor of legalizing even medical marijuana in the region.

As for legalization, some ARDA members have taken a clear position in favor, even if it is not an official goal of the organization, like decriminalization. That would include me, as well as Dr. Elias Neuman, author of "Legalization of Drugs." We agree that legalization would advance harm reduction in the region through reducing the harms of drug adulteration, lack of knowledge about purity and overdoses, violence, and by allowing investment in information and health care instead of security and jails. Still, harm reduction can also be understood as a partial answer to the failure of prohibition in Latin America. Even without legalization, we can still reduce the harms of criminalization, we can still contact drug users through outreach with a non-judgmental approach, we can still deliver sterile syringes, and test drugs and try to modify the drug control laws.

WOL: What do you expect from the conference in Mérida?

Inchaurraga: I go to Mérida with the strong conviction that I will meet many people with very good ideas that can help people here in my country and in Latin America as a whole in our work of reducing the harms related to drugs and to drug prohibition. But I also go especially in the hope of finding people who can help us in our work to reduce harms related to ignorance and fear.

-- END --
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Issue #274, 1/31/03 The Road to Mérida: Interviews with Participants in the "Out from the Shadows" Campaign | Road to Mérida: Dr. Silvia Inchaurraga, Argentine Harm Reductionist | Road to Mérida: Sala Errata | Ed Rosenthal Convicted, Faces 10-Year Mandatory Minimum for Oakland Medical Marijuana Grow | Bush Treatment Initiative Draws Mixed Reviews from Reformers | Into the Morass: Green Berets in Colombia as "War on Drugs" Morphs into "War on Terror" | Drug Czar Says Nevada Election Laws Don't Apply to His Politicking | Latin American Anti-Prohibition Conference, Feb. 12-15, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico | Cumbre Internacional Sobre Legalización, 15-Dec Febrero, Mérida, México | Cúpula Internacional sobre Legalização, 15-Dec de Fevereiro, Mérida, México | Newsbrief: Violence Continues as Talks Begin in Bolivia -- Coca Growers, Workers, Indians Present Demands | Newsbrief: DEA Moving to Schedule Two More Hallucinogens | Newsbrief: Utah Drugged Driving Bill on the Move | Newsbrief: Colorado Bill Equating Meth Manufacture and Child Abuse Moves Forward | Newsbrief: Asian Drug Abolition Mania Spreading -- Malaysia Calls for "Total War," Drug Free Southeast Asia by 2015 | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Newsbrief: Judge Kane Speaks Out Again, Lambasts Federal Drug War | DC Job Opportunity at DRCNet -- Campus Coordinator | The Reformer's Calendar
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