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Latin America moves to decriminalize drugs

Latin American nations are taking a second look at prosecutions targeting personal use.

September 02, 2009

A panel led by former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico recommended a new paradigm for the war on drugs earlier this year, and now Latin America is heeding their advice. Mexico and Argentina have begun to relax penalties for possession of small quantities of illegal drugs, treating personal use as a victimless crime and husbanding resources for the fight against big-time narcotics traffickers in a global business that the United Nations values at more than $300 billion annually. This is a sensible strategy that Brazil and Ecuador apparently are poised to adopt; the Obama administration has prudently taken a wait-and-see approach to the changes.

Argentina's Supreme Court last week struck down a law that punished adults with up to two years in jail for marijuana possession, saying personal use is a private affair and that prison time is, therefore, unconstitutional in such cases. Adults are "responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," the ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others." In response, the administration is preparing a law to decriminalize possession of small quantities of drugs while continuing to pursue producers and traffickers.

The Argentine decision came as Mexico decriminalized possession not only of marijuana but of major narcotics, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. There, too, selling drugs is still a serious offense, and dealers face prison sentences.

Decriminalization of drugs for personal use eliminates a lucrative source of bribes for corrupt police officers. Critics on one side argue that anything short of full legalization will continue to fuel a hugely profitable illicit drug trade, while critics on the other side say any shift in the direction of legalization condones drug usage and sends the wrong message at a time when thousands are dying in the battles between and against drug cartels in Mexico. This page recognizes the problems of drug consumption in the U.S. and, increasingly, in Latin America, with 460,000 hard-core addicts in Mexico alone.

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy argues that drug consumption is best reduced through education and prevention rather than jail time, that drug addiction is best addressed as a public health problem through rehabilitation programs and that the big fight is against organized crime. For these nations, waging tough struggles with limited resources, it makes sense to shift law enforcement, courts and prisons away from small fry and concentrate instead on disrupting violent cartels.

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