The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform


After decades of zero-tolerance towards drug and drug users, a number of Latin American countries have been moving towards a more liberal approach to drugs, with Argentina leading the way.

Argentina is one of Latin America’s biggest drug-consuming countries. Whilst traditionally a shipping point for Andean cocaine destined for Europe, the country has increasingly witnessed an increase in drug use over recent decades. The UNODC’s 2011 report states that 2.6% of Argentines use cocaine each year (a figure that is approaching the 3% level in the US).

For decades the country’s drug laws were used by the government as a form of state-led repression, as opposed to being developed with any real regard for public health. Within the context of significant civil unrest, violent guerilla groups and a state-led ‘dirty war’, Argentine Minister of Social Welfare, José López Rega implemented heavily repressive drug laws in accordance with US President Nixon and used the War on Drugs to fight guerrilla groups. Under Law 20,771 of 1974, drug offences were relabelled as ‘federal offences’ and a ‘threat to national security’ and personal use and low-level drug traffickers were heavily targeted.

However, in 2009 the country took a significant step forward. In a major ruling on the 25 August 2009, the Supreme Court of Justice in Argentina unanimously declared that the punishment for personal consumption of drugs should now be viewed as unconstitutional. The punishment for the possession of drugs for personal use with a prison sentence of up to two years was declared to be in violation of Article 19 of the constitution (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.) Whilst this was doubtless an important step towards targeting those involved at the top end of the drug scale (i.e. organised criminals), courts still interpret the drug law in an inconsistent manner.

An examination of post-Arriola results makes for interesting reading. Whilst three out of every four cases are dismissed before being presented to a judge and only 4% of cases that get that far result in full conviction, fourteen cases for personal use or simple possession still begin every day in Argentina[1]. The Arriola ruling was important in recognising the need for change, full legislative reform is still needed.

Perhaps a step of even more international importance was the 2008 speech of Minister for Justice, Security and Human Rights, Aníbal Fernández, at a UN meeting in Vienna. In this speech Fernández stated the need to revise drug laws in order to bring an end to the system that “traps and criminalises the user” [2]. He continued “It is necessary to change the old [UN] Conventions because the world has changed….the right to health is a right that everyone should be eligible for in an equal manner” [2].

The Argentine Chamber of Deputies is currently debating the full decriminalisation of the personal use of drugs, as well as national drug policy should be reformed in order to treat drug use as a public health issue.[3]

Reforming drug policy away from criminalisation and towards public health would be a considerable advance considering the recent increase in paco (a cheap, highly addictive and harmful paste derived from the predominantly chemical residue left over from the production of cocaine) use, especially in poorer neighbourhoods. Paco use has increased by over 200% in recent years according to the UN. Considering that one report claims that it “contains precious little cocaine, and an abundance of noxious chemicals laced at times with ground glass, dust and other impurities” [5], full drug reform in Argentina has become an urgent necessity.


[1] Soriano, F. ‘Drogas: se abren 14 causas por día contra consumidores’, Clarín, 18 May 2011

[2] ‘Aníbal Fernández pidió revisar las leyes que castigan el consumo de drogas’, Clarín, 3 October 2008

[3] ‘La ley para despenalizar el consumo de drogas es tratada en comisión en Diputados’, El Intransigente, 8 July 2011

[4] Schweimler, D., ‘Drugs scourge takes hold in Argentina’, BBC, 29 August

[5] McDonnell, P., ‘Argentina confronts plague named Paco’, LA Times, 25 May 2007