12 May 2007

The fifth column in the Argentine War on Drugs

A couple of weeks ago I spotted an article about the Argentine version of the infamous "War on Drugs", the laws that govern the personal use of illegal drugs. In the best tradition of Página/12, it was called "Mejor el remedio", a pun-reversal on the first part of the saying "es peor el remedio que la enfermedad", i.e. "the cure is worse than the disease". It noted that the Argentine Penal Code gives you 1 to 6 years in prison for having illegal drugs (any drug, in any amount) on you. If the amount is small, you may get less because it's understood that you have it for yourself, i.e. you're not a dealer. But how small — that's decided at the judge's discretion.

Because it's obvious that a few grams of marijuana or cocaine cannot be the basis for a drug-selling operation, and it's ridiculous to arrest poor sods caught with such small amounts, more and more judges are turning to an alternative, which is forcing drug users to attend courses to fight their addiction. But still a person who consumes drugs will not be left alone. This has not always been so; in 1974 a law mandated punishment, but it was overturned in 1986 by the Supreme Court; in 1990 the Supreme Court (now more conservative and dominated by the infamous "automatic majority" appointed by the Master of Lies) reinstated the prohibition. The legalization of certain drugs for private therapeutical use, and possibly the liberalization of the laws for general personal use, is now winding its way up the tortous Argentine judicial system, after a recent pronouncement of the Federal Chamber, which must be ratified by the Cassation Chamber and will probably end up, again, at the feet of the Supreme Court's current, more progressive justices.

Well, that was very nice, but I let it pass and forgot about it. Yet today I'm brought back to this subject by another article, this time on the strategies that can be employed to help, rather than punish, those who abuse drugs.

There are, we learn, two NGOs working here in Rosario to do what they call "damage reduction" in the field of drug abuse. Put simply, these fellows look out for people who, through abuse of illegal drugs, put their own lives in danger, and supply them with the proper equipment, raising their awareness of security concerns. This is neither a new idea in the world, nor surprising for Argentina; this country has always been a vigorous source of organizations with great ideas that go ahead of their time, or rather, ahead of the unbelievably outdated social dogmata enforced by most lawmakers. The government seems to be always lagging behind, as if its reflexes were numbed; in the face of a failing "war", they keep on fighting unsuccessfully, with useless weapons.

The NGOs, called Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Drogadependencias y SIDA (CEADS, "Center for Advanced Studies of Drug-dependencies and AIDS") and Asociación de Reducción de Daños de Argentina (ARDA, "Damage Reduction Association of Argentina"), have launched a "sniff kit" — a sterile instrument that can be used to safely inhale cocaine or ketamine. "If we're really concerned about the health of those who cannot or will not stop consuming drugs, we need to achieve the goal that they do not die from contagious diseases or [victims of] trigger-happy [police]", says the lady in charge. The article notes, quite obviously, that "the war on drugs turned, long ago, into a war against [drug] users". CEADS also notes that all drug users are treated alike and referred to as addicts, whether they're actually addicted or not, and the penalizing the possession of drugs works for the illegal sellers and for the corrupt police.

A couple of weeks ago, coincidentally, federal judge Laura Cosidoy publicly denounced several members of the Santa Fe Provincial Police of having a well-oiled association with the drug dealers and of selling illegal stuff themselves, and noted that the very head of the local anti-drug department was in charge of doing the night rounds in certain entertainment facilities to collect bribes. Everybody from the governor down reacted with a pretense of astonishment and outrage, as if this wasn't public knowledge. Judge Cosidoy had said more or less the same (though without names) last November, on TV. The governor dismissed the provincial drug department and had a meeting with Cosidoy, but nothing else happened, since, like she herself said, "there's no political will to investigate". The accused cannot be really fired without proof, and nobody seems willing to follow Cosidoy's pointers, so the dismissal was symbolic, just for the cameras. Governor Obeid is a lame duck and it makes sense he'll try to display interest for this issue, even though he hasn't done anything about it in the last 3 years, since he's got nothing to lose and can make his party look good... We all know this'll end up getting nowhere.

I don't have an unmoveable position on this. There are arguments against de-penalizing drug use, but in general I think punishing addicts for doing what they can't help doing is unethical. Sending a person to jail in Argentina means exposing him or her to mental and physical (including sexual) abuse, inhumane living conditions, and of course, even harder drugs. The Argentine Constitution, moreover, specifically says that you can't legislate anyone's private life ("Art. 19: The private actions of men which in no way offend public order or morality, nor injure a third party, are only reserved to God and are exempted from the authority of judges").

Of course many simply want to punish drug users out of self-righteousness or a sort of moral outrage. They feel drugs are "dirty" and degrade morality. They don't seem to have learned from history. Nobody likes a junkie happily hallucinating besides oneself on a bus seat, but that junkie is a person and, as long as he doesn't try to rob you or abuse you, your arguments against his use of drugs have the same value as arguments against the colours currently in fashion.
The so-called "yuck factor" is undeniable — but you can't outlaw a thing because it offends your taste.

I've never used illegal drugs (I've never even tried cigarettes!), but I've been with people who do on occasion — pretty articulate people, most of them; people who work and function OK in society. Some did have problems, and it's quite possible that the drugs made them worse, but drugs were not the original cause. These were middle-class people with access to good-quality recreational drugs, not helpless addicts who would smoke or inhale anything. I think a combination of this access to quality drugs (for occasional users) and a strategy of damage reduction (for otherwise helpless addicts), plus full freedom for therapeutical use, would be nice to have, on a temporary basis. It can't be worse than it is now, anyway.


  1. Pablo -

    What drugs are you specifically talking about in your blog? Are you making a distinction between soft drugs (like cannabis) and hard drugs? Does the Argentine penal code recognize a difference?


  2. Good question. I'm not distinguishing soft and hard drugs, since the distinction is partly subjective and I'm not prepared to deal with them separately. I leave that for the experts to decide, if the law has to be re-written. I don't think the Argentine Penal Code recognizes the difference either. That's another (huge) part of the problem.

  3. Pablo –

    What do you mean by “access to quality drug?” Are you implying some role for the state? “Pure” drugs of course usually come from diverting pharmaceuticals into the illegal market (this would almost always be the case, for example, with ketamine).

    I think that the primary concern of society should be the collateral damage resulting from drug use. Accidents caused by drunk drivers are surely the biggest social problem with alcohol (ab)use.


  4. I don't think the state should provide the drugs. However, if they weren't illegal, it would be possible for the state to control their quality, so that the secondary effects of the drug itself are not compounded with the effects of bad-quality ingredients. In fact, making something illegal increases its price, so making drugs legal might make good-quality drugs cheaper. If the result is too cheap, the state can burden the drugs with taxes — as it already does with cigarettes, for example.

    The state should, indeed, try to mitigate the effects of drug abuse, in the same way it organizes e.g. courses to quit smoking and assists alcoholics (directly or by sponsoring private organizations with the know-how needed for these issues).

    Those are just ideas off the top of my head. I don't claim to have a solution, but I think those who want to legalize certain drugs have identified the problem.

  5. Mitigation, damage control and ultimately education are the more progressive and frankly more realistic options for governments anywhere in our modern society.

    This is especially so since the law may have been created "equal" but not everyone is "equal" in front of those executing the law.

    During my days working and living in Manhattan and Hong Kong (the Manhattan of Asia), I had witnessed well-heeled colleagues, acquaintances dabbling in the "good stuff". They had the financial capacity to get high quality drugs which they consumed in the privacy of their plush homes, private clubs or exclusive restaurants, away from the cops. These people were never caught let alone reprimanded. Meanwhile the poor sods snorting or inhaling in some dump were always the ones who got nabbed by the police and had to do time in prison/ correctional centres with rehabilitation facilities, etc. I'm sure prison is better used for real criminals and society is better served with people who are able to function as healthy and content beings without aid from substances.

  6. Pablo –

    Leaving aside the recreational use of drugs, isn’t Argentina’s biggest drug problem paco – the exceedingly addictive and cheap chemical leftover from cocaine production. One government official has pegged daily usage at 400,000 doses/day.

    Perhaps because its consumption has mostly been associated with youths living in poverty it hasn’t been regarded as much of a problem. But since its use is spreading to higher socioeconomic castes, it’s now more of a problem, of course.


  7. Pablo –

    Since miss cupcake raised the issue of the inequities of social caste, whatever happened to the investigation and prosecution of the individuals involved in the trafficking of cocaine from Ezeiza to Madrid via diplomatic luggage on Southern Winds?

    It was front page news for weeks (but came to light months after the actual bust), and highly-placed, influential people were obviously involved.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.