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Wanted: Non-Punitive Approach to Drug Policy
email this pageprint this pageemail usFabiana Frayssinet - Inter Press Service
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August 28, 2010

The war on drugs has failed... and it's high time to replace an ineffective strategy with more humane and efficient drug policies.
Rio de Janeiro - Experts from 13 Latin American countries called for a shift in counter-drug policies from a punitive to a public health-based approach for users, in order to reduce drug-related violence, on the argument that the current "war on drugs" has been lost in the region.

The Aug. 26-27 Second Latin American Conference on Drug Policy was organised in Rio de Janeiro by Intercambios Civil Association for the Study of and Assistance for Drug-Related Problems, of Argentina, and Psicotropicus of Brazil, two non-governmental organisations that advocate a new approach to global anti-drug policy.

The conference, which brought together public officials, academics and activists from around the region to debate drug policy, discussed questions like the decriminalisation of the possession and personal use of drugs.

"Criminalisation drives drug users away from health services, out of fear of discrimination or being turned in to the police," Psicotropicus director Luiz Paulo Guanabara said at the opening of the conference.

Rejection of a punitive approach to drug use was a common theme in the speeches of the majority of the participants at the conference, which was supported by the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) and attended by the representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Office for Brazil and the Southern Cone, Bo Mathiesen.

"The answer is social, health and social inclusion policies," Graciela Touzé, president of Intercambios, told IPS.

Touzé cited the case of Argentina, where the Supreme Court ruled in August 2009 that penalising the possession of drugs for personal use was unconstitutional, because it contravened the right to privacy.

Advocates of decriminalisation hope that as a result of that landmark ruling, the Argentine Congress will amend the country's 20-year-old drug law.

According to Touzé, the reform is necessary because the law, "which has focused on a legal approach to consumers…the weakest link in the chain, has clearly proven ineffective."

Intercambios maintains that drug-related problems should be seen as a public health issue, so that "respect for human rights prevails."

"We are in favour of a modification of the punitive policies" towards substance abuse, Touzé said. "We believe repression is not the response to a social problem like drugs."

Rio de Janeiro state legislator Carlos Minc, who served as environment minister under President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, called for similar reforms.

Given that "the war on drugs is lost," changes must be made in Brazil's legislation, which treats even those who share drugs for free as dealers and traffickers.

Under Brazilian law, "anyone who is sitting in a circle of friends passing around a joint can go to prison as a dealer," said Minc of the governing leftwing Workers Party (PT).

The only thing a policy like this does is swell the ranks of prisons that are already bursting at the seams, he argued.

The results of policies of criminalisation and repression were expressed in a tragic and symbolic manner this week in Mexico, where 72 migrants from different Latin American countries were massacred, presumably by drug gangs, said Jorge Hernández Tinajero, president of the Collective for an Integral Drug Policy in Mexico (CUPIHD).

The Mexico City political scientist criticised the imbalance between public health and security policies.

"More than 90 percent of resources in Mexico invested in the fight against drugs go to a police and military-based approach, and less than 10 percent go towards prevention, education and training," Hernández Tinajero commented to IPS.

Brazil's national secretary of justice Pedro Vieira Abramovay stressed the importance of a debate "free of prejudice" to start moving in the direction of modifying mindsets.

"A focus based on public health and widespread debate in society is much more important and efficient than a 'war on drugs' approach," the official told IPS.

But he said he does not know if the time is right yet to talk about decriminalisation in Brazil, although he stressed the need for changes, "so traffickers and dealers are treated as criminals and users are dealt with from a public health approach."

The non-punitive, therapeutic approach has been shown to be successful in Portugal, where personal use and possession of all drugs was decriminalised in 2001, said Manuel Cardoso of that southern European country's Institute for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

Cardoso told IPS that not only did consumption decline at the youngest end of the spectrum, but there was a change in the fight against drugs, which was previously focused on petty dealers and consumers to the detriment of persecution of the big traffickers.

A February 2009 report on "Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift" by a panel of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy that included former presidents César Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil also called for a new approach.

Noting that "Violence and the organised crime associated with the narcotics trade remain critical problems in our countries," the presidents wrote that "the war on drugs has failed. And it's high time to replace an ineffective strategy with more humane and efficient drug policies."

"(W)e propose a paradigm shift in drug policies based on three guiding principles: Reduce the harm caused by drugs, decrease drug consumption through education, and aggressively combat organised crime," they added. "To translate this new paradigm into action we must start by changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public-health system."

Cardoso said at the time that the group called for only the decriminalisation of marijuana and not other illicit drugs because "you have to start somewhere."

And in July 2010, Cardoso said that "In Latin America, the only outcome of prohibition is to shift areas of cultivation and drug cartels from one country to another, with no reduction in the violence and corruption generated by the drug trade."

Rubem Cesar Fernandes, director of Viva Rio, the biggest NGO active in Rio de Janeiro's "favelas" or slums, said it is necessary to start talking about legalisation of drugs, especially "the less dangerous and hard ones," like marijuana.

As the most widely consumed drug, marijuana has "a huge significance in terms of reducing organised crime's hold on the market," Fernandes told IPS.

That change is necessary, to put an end to "organised crime's monopoly" on drugs and the resultant "militarisation of the conflict," he added. Viva Rio combats violence through social programmes in the city's favelas.

In the case of marijuana, reforms could include the possibility of "growing for one's own personal use," in associations like cooperatives of friends or neighbours, he suggested.

"Possibilities have to be opened up for legal activities surrounding drugs, because today they are totally dominated by organised crime," he said.

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