Pubdate: Sat, 7 Jun 2008
Page: A10
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2008 The Washington Post Company
Author: Monte Reel, Washington Post Foreign Service


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 2001.

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 Fernandez -- Argentina's highly influential minister
of justice, security and health -- publicly denounced Argentina's
current drug laws as a "catastrophe."

Fernandez 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," Fernandez 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." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake