Drug Decrim Bill Introduced in Argentina -- Would Also Bar Forced Treatment 12/5/03

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Deputy Eduardo Garcia of the Socialist Party has introduced a bill in the Argentine Chamber of Deputies that would decriminalize the possession and personal use of both hard and soft drugs. The bill, which was introduced November 18, would also eliminate the compulsory treatment of drug offenders. If the bill is enacted, Argentina would join Colombia, Peru, and Uruguay as Latin American countries that have decriminalized, or in Colombia's case, legalized drug use and possession.

Garcia's bill would modify Law 23.737, the current Argentine drug law, which is fully in line with US-style prohibitionist policies. To the law's Article 14, which mandates a one-to-six-year prison term and fine for drug possession, is added the following clause: "except when, because of the small quantity and other circumstances, the evidence suggests unmistakably that possession is for personal use."

The bill also eliminates several articles in Law 23.737 authorizing coerced drug treatment -- the "drug court" model -- and replaces them with a new Article 19, which specifies the limited circumstances in which drug treatment can be ordered. "Treatment can be applied when the defendant grants his consent or when he presents a danger to himself or others," says the article.

The authors of the bill use its prologue to lay out their case. Citing Argentine statistics as well as sources such as the Canadian Senate special committee on drugs, the prologue argues that the current drug law has "harmful effects on personal and public health" while it has showed itself "absolutely ineffective in achieving its expressed objective of reducing the demand for illicit substances." What is equally bad, write the authors, is that "it is more than evident that the criminalization of possession for personal use is highly inefficient in combating the drug trade, even to the point of causing the undesired effect of allowing and promoting its development."

According to Argentine researchers, almost 98% of people arrested under the drug law had not been jailed before and the same number were not charged with any crime, while 91% were unarmed and 40% were employed -- a respectable figure in Argentina's battered economy. And the vast majority of arrests made under the law -- 87% -- have been for possession of less than five grams of marijuana or cocaine. A similar study by the Buenos Aires Health Secretariat found that 89% had never had problems with the law.

 
L-R: Gustavo Hurtado of ARDA, Deputy Eduardo Garcia,
Silvia Inchaurraga of ARDA, Deputy Maria Elena Barbagelatta
at the Deputies Chamber, November 18, 2003
The bill was drafted with the assistance of the Argentine Harm Reduction Association (http://www.arda.iwarp.com), which has also begun a media campaign to generate support. That campaign is ongoing, and includes the use of posters and flyers emblazoned with messages such as "In our country the drug law is more harmful than drugs" and "Do you know that in Argentina most of the drug related cases are associated with possession?" The campaign aims not only at generating support for the bill, but also more broadly at raising public awareness of the possibility of more effective and humane responses to the issue of drug use.

"This bill has two key points," said ARDA executive director Silvia Inchaurraga. "First is no more punishment of possession of personal use, and second is no more compulsory treatment for drug users. There is a provision in the bill that would allow treatment options for people who commit other crimes -- not drug possession -- and have a drug problem," she told DRCNet. "And the bill modifies existing law so that different treatment options can be tried. Now, only abstinence-based treatment is allowed."

The bill is unlikely to move far this year, Inchaurraga said. "We have a long way to go in discussing the bill with the deputies, and many of them are changing in a few weeks, but the bill will be forwarded to the relevant committees -- the health committee and drugs committee, of course, but also the security committee."

The decriminalization proposal is being championed by Socialist Party deputies, all eight of whom are cosponsors. But the Socialist Party is only a part of the third largest bloc in the chamber, the Alternative Interbloc, whose 29 deputies are outnumbered by the opposition Radicals (66 seats) and the ruling Peronists (116 seats). While the bill also has sponsors among the Radical Party, the United Left, and the National Party's Irma Parentella, who earlier this year introduced a medical marijuana bill in conjunction with ARDA (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/295.shtml), it as yet has no Peronist cosponsors, and the government of President Nestor Kirchner has given only weak and mixed signals as to whether it would support it.

"Kirchner has said nothing about the bill," said Inchaurraga, "but he did nominate Dr. Zafforoni, who supports drug decriminalization, to the Supreme Court. The Health Minister, who was appointed by Kirchner's predecessor, however, has criticized the bill, and that was a surprise to us, but on the other hand, the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SEDRONAR) has expressed interest in analyzing the bill."

For Spanish speakers, the bill is available online at:
http://www1.hcdn.gov.ar/dependencias/dsecretaria/Periodo2003/PDF2003/TP2003/09noviembre2003/tp182/5616-D-03.pdf

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