Saturday, June 7, 2008

In Argentine Drug Courts, A Shocker at Sentencing

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

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."

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 7, 2008; A10

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