Feature: Regional Anti-Prohibitionist Conference Gets Under Way in Buenos Aires 9/9/05

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Dozens of drug reform activists from throughout Latin America and Europe joined with legislators from Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay, as well as judges, lawyers, researchers, and local activists from across the continent in Buenos Aires Wednesday evening to kick-off the Latin American Meeting for Drug Policy Reform. Organized by the regional anti-prohibitionist grouping REFORMA, the conference is actually three-tiered. First, it is a meeting and strategizing session for REFORMA as it eyes modifying the UN drug conventions in Vienna in 2008. Second, the conference includes the 1st Regional Symposium of Legislators and Judges on Drug Policy. Last but not least is the general conference itself, which will extend through today.

In opening remarks Wednesday evening, Argentine Deputy Eduardo Garcia, who has sponsored a bill calling for the depenalization of drug possession in his country, told attendees at the Argentine Senate chambers their presence was more than symbolic. "It is important that we are meeting here in the Argentine Senate," he said. "For some years now we have been trying to modify the drug possession law here, trying to reverse it." While his bill is pending, Garcia worried that it may not pass. "I am concerned that we may be going backwards, which will only aggravate the problem," he said.

As attendees chewed on coca leaves supplied by Peruvian coca grower leader Nancy Obregon, lead conference organizer Silvia Inchaurraga of the Argentine Harm Reduction Association welcomed her guests and provided an outline of what the conference will provide. "This is a meeting not only of individuals but also of organizations demanding the reform of the drugs laws," she said. "The question is how we can effectively involve the countries and organizations of Latin America in this process. We will be hearing diverse perspectives," said Inchaurraga. "We will hear from producing countries, we will hear from consuming countries, we will hear from senators, judges, and drug uses and coca growers alike. We will also discuss the relationship between harm reduction and anti-prohibitionism."

The UN General Assembly meeting on drug policy in Vienna in 2008 is the target, Inchaurraga said. "We are looking at Vienna in 2008 and we need to strengthen our movement. There is ample evidence that the war on drugs has failed, with tremendous cost to Latin America. We must have drug policies that are more just and effective," she said, hitting a theme repeated over and over again so far at the conference.

"The drug laws exist without justification," said former Colombian attorney general and honorary head of REFORMA Gustavo de Greiff. "In 40 years of drug war, they have not fixed the problem. To the contrary, they have created more evils. They are responsible for the corruption, the crimes of the drug traffickers, the deaths of innocents. And drug use has not diminished. In fact, it is easier to get prohibited drugs now than in the time of Richard Nixon, who began this war and imposed it on the world."

Continuing in his keynote address, De Greiff said that one social obstacle to legalization is the fears of parents that it will lead to an increase in drug abuse. "We need to answer this legitimate concern," he said. "We have to confront this and prepare convincing arguments to reduce these concerns. And I think we can if we look at Holland after the liberalization of its marijuana laws or if we look at the US after Prohibition. Legalization is not an invitation to consume or sell drugs indiscriminately," he warned, "but the regulation of the traffic and consumption accompanied by campaigns to reduce the harms of drug use. One way to do that is to reduce the harms associated with prohibition."

De Greiff described himself as "moderately pessimistic" about the prospects for positive change at the global level because of the vested interests who want to maintain the status quo, citing the DEA as a prime example. Even among the professional drug fighters, however, there is recognition that prohibition has failed. "The drug fighters in Mexico tell me it is a fruitless war, but they won't say so publicly," he complained. "I am pessimistic, but of course, I will not stop struggling."

But while De Greiff and others focused on politics and policy, some had messages that were more direct. One audience member, a Quechua-speaking woman, held up coca leaves, addressing the audience first in Quechua, then in Spanish, as she told it "coca has to do with life, with the future, with the past." Coca is "a great message from our ancestors," she said, as she blessed and sought blessing from the sacred leaves. "It is useful as a food, useful to fend off tiredness, useful to calm the people," she said. "Its use must be permitted."

The conference is in full-swing as these words are written. Look for an in-depth report on the proceedings and what comes out of them next week.

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Issue #402 -- 9/9/05

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