“Next year we hope to be evaluating the implementation of a new Drug Law”. Graciela Touzé, president of Intercambios, expressed this in the closing remarks of the 10th Conference on Drug Policy that took place this past June 7th in the Senate of the Nation. Throughout the conference it was clear that the officials at the national level are in agreement over decriminalization, that the representatives have come to a consensus on a proposal, and that there exist serious weaknesses in the development of treatments for drug users.

“Hopefully one year from now we will meet again, but this time we will be evaluating the implementation of a new drug law”, stated Graciela Touzé, president of Intercambios, on June 7th of this year, concluding the 10th National Conference on Drug Policy. As the annual conference achieves its first decade of existence, it seems that we are close to being able to celebrate one of the causes for its creation: to achieve a reform in the Drug Law 23.737 in a wider debate about the public policy that should be implemented in all fields to generate an integrated response to the problems associated with drugs.

This appeared to emerge after an intense day of debate this past June 7th in the Salon Azul of the Senate of the Nation, where 400 people attended the conference. This year they centered the conference around the proposal from the campaign “15 Ideas for a New Drug Law”. 

During the opening remarks, Touzé recalled that in 2003, when they held the first conference, the intention was “to bring the issue of the rights of drug users to the table. Today, 10 years later, human rights have become a central issue in the political agenda. With this perspective we launched the campaign 15 Ideas for a New Drug Law. They are 15 ideas that have been constructed collectively, after research, field interventions and dialogues with different sectors, to promote a new policy that guaranties that the subjective and social condition is not confronted with more punishment but rather with more inclusion.”       

A new finding in the opening was the support of the representative from the Secretariat for the Prevention of Drug Addiction and the Fight against Drug Trafficking (SEDONAR), which signifies a change in the paradigm, given that in the last two decades they have been against decriminalization. O`Donnell explained that “decriminalization does not imply the legalization of drugs. We are facing two different processes. The decriminalization responds to the urgent need to not criminalize people that consume drugs. Legalization implies a perspective in the legal field that, at least, would contradict international agreements”. The representative from SEDRONAR assured that “the penal system will actively intervene where it is necessary: in the persecution of drug trafficking as organized crime”.     

For her part, Cristina Caamaño, secretary of Cooperation with the Judicial Powers, Prosecutors and Legislatures of the Ministry of National Security, recognized the ten year anniversary of Intercambios: “This conference has been crucial in weakening the consensus on a punitive response”, she asserted.  According to the official from the Ministry of Security, “we find it very important to stop monitoring the weakest while the strongest roam freely. While criminalizing the weakest links in supply chains, the largest trafficking organizations go unpunished”.

Álvaro Ruiz, assistant secretary of Labor Relations for the National Labor Department emphasized the importance of working to reduce the stigmatization associated with the consumption of drugs in the workplace, including legal drugs such as alcohol.

What Drug Law do we need?

Proposals one through seven of the “15 Ideas for a New Drug Law” were addressed in the first discussion of the morning, under the title, “What Drug Law do we need?, With this phrase, the priest Charly Olivero of the villa 21-24 Barracas, the judge in criminal matters Adrian Grunber, the psychologist Ann Tisera from the Hospital Borda, and the cannabis activist Ignacio Canabal from the Cultural Studies Association Rosarina (AREC); questioned the authors of various bills who wish to reform law 23.737 about drugs.     

The legislators Victoria Donda (Libres del Sur), Manuel Garrido (Unión Cívica Radical-UCR), Fabián Peralta (Generación para un Encuentro Nacional- GEN) and Adriana Puiggrós (Frente para la Victoria - FPV) responded to the concerns.

In a brief introduction by the representatives, Fabián Peralta stated: “The Court’s ruling is not simply another opinion to take into account. Congress is indebted with this ruling and hopes to settle the debt soon”. Garrido added that the fact that congress “is trying this now is encouraging and shows an overlap between the powers”.

The judge Adrián Grunberg made various observations in respect to what the bills provide in terms of the punishments for mules and the people that sell for personal consumption, who could be framed as part of illicit organizations. He added that “Puigross’s project is interesting in that he poses to absolve people in extreme situations of vulnerability”.

Then father Charly pointed out that even though decriminalization is “right”, it doesn`t seem to him “strategic, because we see that there is a number of rights violated that they are not going to be able to guarantee, rights of kids who do not have the ability to include an issue on the agenda”. He asked: “Why don’t we explain the difference between criminalizing and legalizing before we decriminalize it? Why not before we populate the territories of care devices for users?

Victoria Donda responded: “we agree that there should have been a comprehensive reform, but we cannot continue saying ´boys, while I fight for a policy more comprehensive, the police will continue arresting you for consumption”. The representative added: “We also believe that if we stop treating it as a criminal issue, it will become more evident to everyone that it is a health problem”.

Andriana Puiggrós added that “when someone does drugs or acts as a mule and society calls them a ‘criminal’, you must explain to them that they are not. It is not enough for the teachers to say it, the law also needs to”. Garrido, for his part, noted that “a great deal of money has been spent in the persecution of users when it should be dedicated to health programs and the persecution of complex crime” and that the law still in effect creates stigmatization and persecution. “With this reform we are eliminating a part of the violations of rights” he concluded.

Ignacio Canabal proposed that self-cultivation is a way for users to gain access to substances, which the State can regulate more easily”. Finally, Ana Tisera warned that “everything gets worse when the patients with mental health problems are also consumers.  They are denied access to help because some colleagues prefer not to work with the mentally unstable when there are drugs involved.

What type of social health care do we need?

In the panel “What type of social health care do we need?”, which concentrated on points eight to fifteen, there was an agreement that “there is a lack of treatments and social responses for the people that consume drugs”. They denounced the lack of resources in general and especially the absence of specific responses for girls, boys and adolescents in conflict with criminal law as well as those in prison with consumption problems and the vulnerability  of those who sell for consumption. The speakers also agreed on the need to audit institutions dedicated to treatments.  

In the panelist were Marta Monclús Masó of the National Procurator's Office, Virginia Sansone, Public defender of Minors and Handicaps, Patricia Pinto, the operator of the Harm Reduction Program of the Municipal of San Martín and Carina Stehlik, director of the Addictions Plan for the province of Mendoza, with the moderation of Hugo Cohen, the advisor in mental health for South America from the Pan-American health organization (OPS).

Among the 15 ideas, point 13 proposes “to facilitate unrestricted access to health care for detainees with problematic drug use”. Monclús Masó explained thatthere is no diagnosis, we do not know how many people consume nor do we know what they consume in the prisons”. The attorney presented a report for the region from the United Nations that reveals that it is estimated that 45% of the population in prison has problems with drug use, and that there are services available for only 2%, with very strict requirements. “In 2009 only 5 detainees finished the treatment, only 4% of the total that had started the treatment. 50% were unable to continue as they were expelled.       

Sansone focused her presentation on the infringement of the rights of boys and girls with problems with drug use: “Of underage boys arrested in Buenos Aires, 10% are charged with the marketing of drugs. The rest are tried as consumers. Paradoxically they are punished then removed from the streets, then locked up.” And what are the results? Of the 650 boys that need help, only 35 are getting treated and of those, only 3% get to the second stage of treatment. 

The situation for adults is no different. “Within the heath system drug user are not recognized as users with rights; we are rejected and stigmatized” stated Patricia Pinto, operator for the Harm Reduction Program of the municipality of San Martin (Province of Buenos Aires), and member of la Red Argentina por los Derechos y Asistencia de los Usuarios de Drogas (RADAUD) (Argentina Network for the rights and assistance of drug users).

Finally, Carina Stehlik, director of the Addictions Plan of the province of Mendoza, presented the experience of her area of jurisdiction, where the Plan is included within the area of Mental Health. With new Addiction Treatment Centers in the province, the state official emphasized that there exist “specific situations that require particular answers and that we rework our methods of approach in regard to the complexity of dual pathologies, chronic patients, women, and children. 

International Experiences

The international experiences were presented by João Castel-Branco Goulão, coordinator of the Portuguese Center for Drugs and Alcohol who carried forward the regulated decriminalization model that has been successful in Portugal since 2001, and Ann Fordham, director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), who discussed the debates on drug policy in an international context. Both distinguished between the legal regulation of the drug market and the discussion in Argentina, which is focused exclusively on the decriminalization of those who use drugs.

Castel-Branco Goulão explained that one of the first consequences of decriminalization is an increased demand on the health system by drug users who begin asking for help when they no longer feel persecuted or as though they are doing something illegal. “When I started to work in this field more than twenty years ago, it was common that people didn’t want to give more than their first name; people were extremely afraid. Today, ten years after decriminalization, they give you their ID card without a problem because they have the peace of mind of knowing that nobody is going to press charges against them.”

The 2001 reform in Portugal included a law of regulated decriminalization, methods for controlling supply, and, above all, new ways of mediating demand: “We incorporated a diverse array of treatments, we introduced methadone as a part of therapy and affirmative action programs for employment of drug addicts in treatment, among other policies”, stated the specialist.

Ann Fordham, executive director of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), referred to the challenge experienced all over the world of generating alternative policies to repression. “Many governments around the world are faced with the same challenges that Argentina is discussing now. An example of how the tone of the debate is changing is that, for the first time this year, the government of the United States recognized in the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) of the United Nations in Vienna that ‘there has been an over-reliance on the benefits of incarceration’. This is a clear indication of change”, she stated.  

Fordham focused on the difference between decriminalizing consumption and legalizing the drug market: “What Argentina is currently discussing is the decriminalization of possession for personal consumption”. She also emphasized the key point of proportional sentencing of penalties, which distinguishes micro-trafficking from the more serious situations. 

In conclusion, the representative of IDPC stressed that, “global evidence shows that continuing to criminalize drug users does not improve the situation. Argentina’s focus is strongly based in the human rights perspective and a change in the law could be an important contribution to the international discussion on drug policy”.

Round of Consultations in Congress

At the same time as the 10th National Conference on Drug Policy, in the adjacent building of the Chamber of Congress, a round of consultations took place among government officials and social organizations focused on modifying the Drug Law 23,737.

The discussion session in Congress had a concrete result: the six bills were synthesized into one, with a consensus on three key points: 1) the decriminalization of possession and self-cultivation for personal consumption, 2) a reduction of penalties for the weakest players in the trafficking networks, especially for mules, and 3) a series of parameters to distinguish between personal consumption, simple possession, and trafficking. In order to be converted into a law, the bill must be voted on by the Chamber of Congress and then by the Senate.

While the results this even still remain to be seen, the anticipation generated by the resolution approved by the lower chamber could be felt at the close of the National Conference where Graciela Touzé, president of Intercambios, concluded with the same desire expressed that the beginning of this report: “Hopefully one year from now we will meet again, but this time we will be evaluating the implementation of a new drug law”.

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