The Other Revolution in Latin America: Leading the Way To a More Progressive Drug Policy

Written by Greg Kamin. Posted in News, Opinion, Politics

Published on December 15, 2009 with 4 Comments

Several Latin American countries including Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador,
are instituting decriminalization policies in an effort to reduce drug violence
and costs associated with a failed war on drugs.
Photo via

By Greg Kamin

December 15, 2009

In April, a new Field Poll showed 56 percent of Californians are in favor of legalizing, taxing, and regulating recreational marijuana. Activists have seized upon the polling data, coupled with the opportunity to raise new revenue for the State during this current budget crisis, and are now circulating an initiative to do just that.

A similar effort is underway in the legislature with Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s AB 390 legislation. Depending on your point of view, these efforts are either progressive and visionary, or dangerously radical. In fact, they are neither. The fact is, on drug policy, the United States is well behind the curve. And while some Americans may be familiar with the more liberal attitudes in some European countries, notably Holland, there is a near total media blackout about the quiet revolution in drug policy going on south of our own borders, in Latin America.


Nowhere is the failure of the US-sponsored drug war more evident than in Mexico, where the government and the cartels are waging an all-out war that has claimed over 12,000 lives. So this year, the Mexican government has decided to try a new approach -decriminalization of small quantities of drugs, including hard drugs, for personal use, in order to free up more law enforcement resources to deal with the dealers and traffickers.

In fact, Mexican law enforcement authorities tried to do it in 2006, but of course the Bush administration, unable to tolerate a “good example in Latin America,” pulled out all the stops to pressure the Mexican government until then-president Vicente Fox vetoed his own bill (it had already passed both houses of the Mexican congress). And while Obama has already had some pretty colossal foreign policy failures in Latin America (think bases in Colombia, tolerating the military coup in Honduras), there have been occasions when the Obama White House has managed to do the right thing, which usually consists of “doing” nothing at all except simply minding their own business. In this case, they managed to at least do that.

And so, with addiction rates rising and bodies piling up in the failed drug war, on August 21st Mexico quietly enacted a law that decriminalized possession of not just marijuana, but cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, and LSD.

Yes, there are problems with the law. The amounts in question are rather stingy -a half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin, and enough pot for about four joints. That means that one of the intended goals of the law, ending the shakedown of small-time users by Mexican law enforcement, could actually backfire and invite more corruption, since officers will have wide discretion over what to do with those caught with more (as well as the usual opportunities to lie and plant evidence -not that cops would EVER do that!).

The law also specifies that users be referred to treatment, though the penalties for not getting “treated” are left unclear. The idea is a basic tenet of harm reduction -that drug use should be treated as a public health concern and not a law enforcement issue. That’s all good and well, but some might bring up the annoying little factoid that many -not all, but many – drug users manage to lead perfectly normal and functional lives, particularly users of marijuana and hallucinogens. They don’t need to be jailed, because they’re not criminals. And they don’t need “treatment” either because they’re not “sick.” They just need to be left alone.

Still, the new law represents a fundamental paradigm shift, made all the more stunning because it was enacted under a conservative president. In fact, President Felipe Calderon submitted the proposal to Congress. And while he did this in part to head off the passage of even more progressive legislation championed by the leftist PRD amidst changing public opinion, one can’t help being impressed!


But Mexico isn’t the only country in Latin America where more progressive drug policy is taking hold. In Argentina, the crisis resulting from the failure of neoliberal capitalism ushered in a new government determined to take an independent stance from Washington. So it should have come as no surprise when the Argentine President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner called for drug decriminalization last year. The Argentine Minister for Justice, Security, and Human Rights, summed up the new thinking on drug policy best when he said, “Decriminalization of the consumer should include what are called second-generation human rights, but at the same time there should be a strong policy of prevention.”

The Argentinian efforts came in fits and starts -the president’s husband and predecessor actually tried to decriminalize drug use as well, but failed, while the courts threw out several drug possession cases. But finally, just one week after Mexico’s law went into effect, the Argentine Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that threw out laws that punish people for drug use as unconstitutional. The government embraced the decision.

In their ruling, the court cited Article 19 of the Argentine Constitution that states:

“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. No inhabitant of the Nation shall be obliged to perform what the law does not demand nor deprived of what it does not prohibit.”

Since no third-party is being injured, the court ruled that consumption of drugs falls under Article 19.

Elsewhere in the Region

In Brazil, President Lula da Silva’s-ruling leftist Worker’s Party will submit a bill to establish a “democratic model” for drugs, legalizing consumption, introducing alternative penalties for small scale drug dealing, authorizing the growing and marketing of marijuana in small quantities, and including a program of harm reduction. The author of the bill, legislator Paulo Teixeira, cited studies showing that 84 percent of those sentenced for drug possession were not armed, and 50 percent of those sentenced for marijuana trafficking had less than 100 grams.

In Bolivia, newly re-elected (in a landslide no less) President Evo Morales has legalized coca production as part of the indigenous culture of Bolivia, though not the production of cocaine. And in the latest news, Bolivia has ended its cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

In Ecuador, a new voter-approved constitution mandates drug use also be treated as a public health concern rather than a law-enforcement issue. Meanwhile, leftist president Rafael Correa pardoned over 2,200 people convicted of minor drug offenses, including “mules” carrying small amounts, as a stopgap measure until laws can be brought up-to-date with the new constitution. On top of that, when the lease on the US military base (used partly for drug eradication efforts) expired in 2009, the polite and well-mannered Correa said that the US was welcome to renew the lease… provided that the US would allow the Ecuadorian military to set up its own base in Miami. The Americans declined.

Apparently it’s fine for the US to set up military bases everywhere else, but not fine for foreign military bases to set up shop in America. Well, now it’s no longer fine to have foreign military bases on Ecuadorian soil either, and the US is leaving.

Unfortunately, not all is hunky-dory. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya also joined the call for drug legalization in late 2008. But then he was overthrown in a military coup, and the rest is history. The coup wasn’t about drug legalization. It was more about his joining ALBA, raising the minimum wage, and calling for a non-binding referendum to gauge people’s opinion on reforming the antiquated constitution (written during the previous military dictatorship in such a way as to ensure that nothing ever changed no matter who was president). But… progressive drug policy becomes just another casualty when you snuff out democracy and self-determination.

Such is also the case in Colombia. Ironically, Colombia has actually had one of the more progressive attitudes towards drugs, following a 1994 decision by the Constitutional Court that declared it unconstitutional to punish drug possession for personal use. But Colombian strongman Alvaro Uribe has a bill working its way through Congress that would make drug use a criminal offense again. So far, the court’s decision stands, but as Uribe consolidates power, that will likely change. And that base that the US was forced to vacate in Ecuador – seven in Colombia are replacing it.

What We Can Learn

Setbacks notwithstanding, as democracy continues its advance in Latin America, so too should a more forward-thinking and humanistic approach to drugs. Perhaps it’s too early to tell how well these policies will ultimately work, but we can take an educated guess based on the experience of Portugal, which has had 8-years to witness the effects of a comprehensive drug decriminalization policy that went into effect in 2001. Since the policy was enacted, teenage drug use has declined, deaths related to heroin use have been cut in half, the number of people seeking treatment has doubled, and HIV infections by drug users have markedly declined.

Meanwhile, here in the US, we continue to be saddled with the devastating social consequences of a failed drug war. Perhaps one measure of a free society is the proportion of its population that the society incarcerates. In America, that proportion is staggering.

On a per capita basis, the United States incarcerates a larger segment of its citizenry than any other country in the world. It’s a statistic so mind-boggling that few Americans believe it when they first hear it, and nevertheless it’s sadly true. And of that prison population, a staggering 55 percent are incarcerated for drug offenses. When a person is forced to rot in prison for a “crime” that caused no harm to anyone else, is that not the very definition of a political prisoner?

The social wreckage caused by this colossal waste of human life, known as the “War on Drugs,” is immeasurable. And though the corporate media aren’t paying attention, our neighbors are showing us a better way.

The sooner we listen, the better for all of us.

Greg Kamin

Greg Kamin

San Franciscan by choice, not birth, Greg Kamin is an activist with a passion for civil liberties and issues of social and economic justice. He is a world traveler, foodie, and all-around experience-seeker, who chronicles his life with a point-and-shoot camera and occasionally writes when feeling particularly inspired.

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