In Argentine Drug Courts, A Shocker at Sentencing

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 7, 2008

BUENOS AIRES -- After getting caught with contraband like ecstasy tablets and marijuana, a few young Argentines have been asked by judges recently to pay an unexpected price for breaking the nation's drug laws: None at all.

That's because separate federal tribunals here have ruled that a law penalizing the personal use of drugs is unconstitutional. Two offenders have been let off the hook in Buenos Aires. And this week another group of judges echoed the ruling after considering the case of a young man arrested with marijuana.

"Criminalization will only apply in cases where the possession of narcotics for personal consumption represents a danger for the public health of others," the judges announced.

The rulings come as Argentina's government is trying to come up with a new way to handle a growing domestic drug-abuse problem. In the past few years, the local press has been chronicling the rise of paco, a smokable form of cocaine. It's cheap, highly addictive and readily accessible, and it has flourished in this city's villa miserias, the shambolic slums that have proliferated after the country's economic collapse in 2001.

Some high-level government officials say the current laws only penalize the victims of drug abuse -- the addicts who need treatment -- and take the focus off the true criminals, namely the traffickers. While a legislative panel works to propose a rewrite of the drug laws with that idea in mind, the judges have chosen not to wait for a new law to be passed.

Those judges, of course, are now the targets of praise and condemnation from social critics who interpret the ruling as either an example of modern enlightenment or an invitation for things to get out of control.

"This criterion fits in well with the laws of more civilized nations," Daniel Sabsay, an Argentine constitutional scholar, told Buenos Aires's Clarin newspaper. "I believe that with this, the sense of a broadening of freedom is respected."

Then there are such critics as Claudio Mate, a former health minister for the province of Buenos Aires, who told reporters the trend threatened to create the "absurdity that we would have more regulations for smokers of tobacco than for consumers of cocaine."

He and others have predicted spiraling rates of drug use, particularly among teenagers.

"Imagine how bad it could be if the state were to renounce even further its punitive power," Roberto Castellano, president of Pro-Life Argentina, said in a news release criticizing legalization efforts.

Those naysayers seem to be swimming against the prevailing tide, however, which has been moving toward a change for several months. This year, Anibal Fernández -- Argentina's highly influential minister of justice, security and health -- publicly denounced Argentina's current drug laws as a "catastrophe."

Fernández pointed to neighbors Brazil and Uruguay as examples of countries where punishments against consumers have already been relaxed without experiencing an upsurge in casual drug use.

But he said Argentines' recent increase in the use of paco underscores the need for treatment, not punishment, when dealing with drug abuse.

"We have to stop being hypocrites," Fernández said at a U.N. forum this year. "Young people also get sick from the consumption of alcohol and pills, which they get freely, and we criminalize those for possessing a marijuana cigarette."

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