An apparent revolt against the strong arm of U.S. antidrug policy is spreading within the top tiers of Latin American governments. “More than 40 years after the world began this war against drugs, I think we need to analyze whether what we are doing is correct,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has recently said. While the US is continuing to pump more and more money into Latin America in an attempt to curb drug-related problems, it is becoming obvious that the tactics that have been relied upon in the past are non-effective. Over 8 billion dollars of military aid has been poured into Colombia alone over the last decade to dismantle drug networks, yet it still remains the world’s top cocaine producer. After decades of being brutalized by the U.S. government’s failed prohibitionist drug policies, many Latin American leaders are uniting to say “enough is enough”, and are looking to explore new ways of stepping up and handling drug issues in their country – and one way that keeps coming up time and time again is to decriminalize drug use for personal use.
Decriminalizing drug possession (when the amounts in possession are small and obviously for personal use) appears to have little impact on levels of illicit drug use. Its greater consequence is that it reduces the arrests of drug users, reduces opportunities for low level police corruption and allows police to focus their time and resources on more serious crimes, such as the large traffickers, it reduces costs within the criminal justice system, and better enables individuals and governments to deal with addiction as a health rather than criminal issue.
Those leaders calling for an end to the criminalization of drugs cannot all be brushed off as weak liberals. Take, for example, Otto Pérez Molina, Guatemala’s new president. He is a tough former general who in his campaign promised an “iron fist” against crime. After assessing the situation once in office, he recently called for the decriminalization of drug-trafficking, stating how much common sense it made to him: “You would get rid of money-laundering, smuggling, arms-trafficking and corruption.”
Recently Colombia’s Constitutional Court approved the government’s proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cocaine or marijuana (small amounts being 20 grams of marijuana or one gram of cocaine). Depending on their state of consumption, somebody found in possession may be ordered to have physical or psychological treatment, but it would be illegal for a user to be prosecuted or detained.
Uruguay has always been on the more liberal side of drug policy in Latin America. Uruguayan law does not criminalize the possession or use of drugs for personal consumption – this is determined by judge’s discretion. But recently the government of Uruguay announced that it will submit a proposal (written by President Jose Mujica) to legalize marijuana under government-controlled regulation and sale, and if it passes after parliamentary approval, it would make it the first country in the world in which the state sells marijuana directly to its citizens.
Bolivia has made its thoughts on the topic crystal clear. It recently left a UN convention on narcotics control because it wants legal protection for the traditional use of coca leaves, which are chewed by many in the country and drunk as tea. Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, who also happens to be the leader of the coca workers’ union, brandished a coca leaf at the annual meeting of the UN commission on drugs in Vienna, urging that his country be readmitted to the convention with an opt-out for coca.
As President, Morales has raised the permitted amount of coca for traditional use from 12,000 hectares (29,500 acres) to 20,000. Foreign officials are not happy with him, and believe the increase is unwarranted. Most coca in Bolivia (31,000 hectares in total) is turned into cocaine for export. Morales, never one to shy away from controversy or back down from a fight he feels strongly in, expelled the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
Venezuela declared all the way back in 1993 that the possession of cocaine (up to 2 grams) and marijuana (up to 20 grams) for personal use would be permitted and no longer punished by prison sentences, recommending treatment instead. In September 2010, the National Assembly passed a third reform in anti-drug legislation, which upheld the previous permissible quantities.
In 2009, Argentina joined in with their ‘Arriola’ ruling by the Supreme Court. This ruling rendered the possession of marijuana for private, personal use by adults no longer punishable by prison sentence. (Possession of marijuana had originally warranted a typical sentence of between one month and two years). In 2011 the Federal Court underlined the unconstitutional nature of prosecuting personal consumption. The ruling’s main argument is that the law penalizing the possession of drugs for personal consumption affects the right to privacy, which is protected by constitutional norms. Supreme Court Judge Carmen Argibay noted that: “drug possession for personal consumption in itself does not provide any reason to affirm that the accused have carried out anything more than a private act or that they have offended public morals or the rights of others.”
Also in 2009, Mexico enacted the ‘Narcomenudeo’ Decree, a law which decriminalized possession of small quantities of specific drugs for personal use. These substances include: marijuana (5 grams), opium (2 grams), heroin (50 mg), cocaine (500 mg), LSD (0.0015 mg) and MDMA (40 mg of powder, crystal or granules or 200 mg of tablets). Also , psychoactive mushrooms and peyote are also decriminalized for use in ceremonies and traditional/cultural usage. Mexico is making a clear attempt to distinguish between personal consumers/street dealers and large-scale traffickers. Those caught with amounts that exceed the stipulated quantities face severe penalties, including long prison sentences, with the law assuming them to be low-scale traffickers.
What is your opinion? Do you feel that that decriminalization for personal use is a good thing? Would a country’s liberal drug policy influence your decision to move there? Do you feel that the current US anti-drug policy in regards to Latin America should continue? How do you think that it could be improved? Leave me your comments here, or you can always connect with me on Twitter at @LatinAmerExpats, Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Latin-America-Expats/117844228230144, or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.