The embattled government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is moving to decriminalize drug possession. But contrary to some reports circulating on drug reform email lists, decriminalization in Venezuela is by no means a done deal. The opposition newspaper El Universal (Caracas) reported Tuesday that as part of its sweeping reform of the country's penal code, the Chavez government will include the decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use. The proposed reform would also address penalties for drug trafficking and manufacture, creating a system of sentences based on weight rather than the current system, which subjects all trafficking and manufacturing crimes to the same harsh set of sentences.
Under the proposed new Article 383 of the penal code, "A personal dose would be understood to be the quantity of the drug that does not exceed the average five-day personal consumption; and a maintenance (or supply) dose would be the quantity of the drug used by the average person (as determined by experts) for no more than 10 days."
Under the article, people caught with "personal dose" or "maintenance dose" amounts of illegal drugs will face no criminal sanction. The benchmarks for those doses have not yet been set. Benchmarks for new, graduated penalties for trafficking and manufacturing offenses have been set:
Venezuelan penologist José Luis Tamayo told El Universal the changes in drug trafficking penalties were needed to ensure justice in sentencing. The reform "would correct a certain current injustice, since today those who traffic drugs in large quantities (for example, a ton of cocaine) are punished with the same sentence as those who traffic in small quantities (for example, 10 grams of cocaine)," he said. "In this manner, the greater or lesser the quantity of the drug detected in each case would be punished in a proportional manner."
Whether the proposed decriminalization becomes the law of the land depends on whether it is approved by the judicial and legislative branches, Venezuelan embassy spokeswoman Arelis Paiva told DRCNet Thursday. "Under Venezuelan law, the reform has to be approved by the Supreme Judicial Tribunal and then by the National Assembly," she said. That process "could take months," she added.
The passage of decriminalization also depends on the survival of the Chavez government. The democratically-elected president faces a possible referendum over his rule this summer. The referendum to remove Chavez -- signatures are still being counted in a highly contentious process -- is the latest effort by Venezuela's elites and upper classes to remove the populist, nationalist leader. Those elites, aided and abetted by the US government, attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow Chavez with a coup in 2002 and have remained unalterably opposed to his rule ever since. (Chavez himself attempted a coup in 1992 and was imprisoned, but he used that imprisonment to launch his career as a democratic politician.)
The move toward decriminalization of drug possession will likely provide even more ammunition for the Chavez demonization campaign emanating from the White House, the State Department, and more shadowy agencies. Chavez is already well-hated by the conservative ideologues, such as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms, and Bush's special envoy to the region Otto Reich, who cut his teeth helping craft the Reagan administration's wars in Central America in the 1980s.
Both men have recently increased their drumbeat of criticism of Chavez, particularly in the run-up to this week's Summit of the Americas in Mexico. Among other things, they accuse Chavez of providing assistance to the revolt in Bolivia that overthrew US ally President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in October -- but they did so gutlessly, retreating to the anonymity of "officials who declined to be named" in an Associated Press story last week.
The attacks on Venezuela from Washington drew a predictable response from Caracas. President Chavez bluntly told the US to butt out of Venezuelan internal affairs, and Foreign Minister Carlos Rangel angrily denied the charges. "If they have any evidence... they should put it on the table so we can discuss it," Rangel told reporters in Caracas on January 6. "What proof do they have of these statements?" Like Rangel, we are still waiting for a response.