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Side Event: Drug Policy In Latin America

Friday Ibarra (MUCD), Juan Fernandez Ochoa (International Drug Policy Consortium), Adriana Muro (Elementa DDHH), Pablo Cymerman (Intercambios A.C.), Ernesto Cortes (LANPUD)

Friday 17th March 2022


Juan Fernandez Ochoa (International Drug Policy Consortium):  Dear colleagues, My name is Juan Fernández Ochoa. I work with the International Drug Policy Consortium and I am grateful to see people join us in person, and online, for this fascinating discussion organised by Mexico United Against Crime, Elementa, IDPC, Intercambios and LANPUD, about ‘Drug policy in Latin America’, on the margins of this 66th Session of the UN CND.  The Latin American region has a rich yet tense history in relation to psychoactive substances and the policies that govern them.  Oral and written records, as well as archaeological findings, suggest a millenary tradition in the use of psychoactive substances such as alcohol, coca, as well as psychedelic plants and mushrooms.  However, the settler colonial project that decimated the Indigenous peoples of our region also sought to curtail, and indeed extinguish, a heritage of ritual, social and medicinal uses involving psychoactive substances.  The advent of prohibition and the global drug control regime not only consolidated and legitimated this historical injustice but dramatically expanded its reach and scope —fuelling surveillance, punishment, criminalisation and neglect…particularly against racialised and minoritised communities.  That said, our continent is also a site of unwavering resistance and experimentation in the construction of alternative approaches to drugs.  Which is why I am pleased to be joined by an amazing panel who continues this tradition of resisting and developing approaches to drugs that prioritise everybody’s safety, social justice and peacebuilding:

Frida Ibarra, from Mexico United Against Crime (MUCD) —based in Mexico.
Advocacy Director of the MUCD, Graduate in Law from the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), and Fulbright Scholar with a Diploma in Drug Policies, Health, and Human Rights. She is the author and coordinator of various public security, drug policy, and justice publications.

Adriana Muro, from Elementa DDHH —based in Colombia and Mexico.
Adriana is a lawyer with a master in human rights and democratisation. She is founder and executive Director of Elementa, a human rights organization that works in Colombia and México to show the impact of the war on drugs in human rights and make investigation and advocacy in justice, truth and reparation policies in favour of the victims of this war.

Ernesto Cortés, from LANPUD —who will share insights from the Central American region.
Ernesto Cortés. Social anthropologist. Director of the Costa Rican Association on Drug Studies and Interventions (ACEID), drug user activist form the Latin American Network of People Who Use Drugs (LANPUD), researcher at the Collective of Drugs and the Law (CEDD) and vicechair of NYNGOC

And Pablo Cymerman, from Intercambios A.C. —from Argentina.
Pablo Cymerman. Presidente de intercambios asociación civil.. psicólogo docente e investigador de la universidad de Buenos Aires. Coordinador ejecutivo de la coalición americana sobre política de drogas y de confedrogas .

Juan Fernandez Ochoa (International Drug Policy Consortium): Over the next 40 minutes, we will hear from their knowledge and experience, and at the end we will do our best to leave space for questions —which you can also pose on the Q&A function of the stream online. I would like to start zooming into the question of the criminal legal system.  Punitive responses toward drug use and possession have led to widespread human rights violations, expressed in police violence, disproportionate sentences and a systematic and harmful use of incarceration to address complex social problems.  Thinking of your contexts, what promising change and innovations do you see in this regard?

Frida Ibarra (MUCD):  In addition campaigns continue to […] of the supply and affect communities that live around this. As a result of the fentanyl crisis in the USA, […]

Juan Fernandez Ochoa (International Drug Policy Consortium): Thanks Frida. It’s interesting to hear about the difference between rhetoric and implementation in Mexico, and about challenges and access to controlled medicines and as well as the challenge of ongoing prosecution. Over to you Adriana

Adriana Muro (Elementa DDHH):  Alternatives for coca leave growers hasn’t worked. One effect of prohibition is the disproportionate use of criminal law, especially minor offenses related to drugs. One of the biggest problems in Colombia about drug use is that here is no harm reduction policy. There is still a lot of stigma around drug use, particularly around civil society. I will speak to the good policies later.

Pablo Cymerman (intercambios A.C.): Argentine drug policy is focused on “fighting” the supply of drugs through the security system, criminal justice and prison. This model prohibits and persecutes the production, transit, commercialization, and consumption to, supposedly, “end drug trafficking”. These policies have consequences that can be assessed through the scant statistics available. Between 2011 and 2020, one in two people in violation of the drug law had a small amount of the substance in their pocket at the time of arrest, or could not be proved that they were selling. They were far from being part of organized crime, but they still were started a legal process. Regarding gangs, between 2018 and 2020, only 4% of all causes involved 3 or more people. In 2016, the processes against those who cultivated or helped to cultivate cannabis grew by 58%, just when many provinces legislated in favour of medicinal use. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of people imprisoned for drug law violations in Argentina grew by 147%. Just as an example, in 2019 they were 15% of the total prison population in the country. In that year, half of the women imprisoned in Argentine jails were there for drug-related crimes. In addition, they were the cause of the imprisonment of 57% of the trans population in the prisons of Argentina. The numbers support the idea that the security forces and the judiciary use their resources to persecute the weakest people. For example, in 2019, 77% of people imprisoned for drug-related crimes were unemployed or with part-time jobs at the time of their arrest. In the case of women, a large majority were heads of single-parent households, held informal jobs or were involved in crises that led them to work as small sellers or transporters of substances. They were the easiest links in the organized crime chain to replace.

Ernesto Cortes (LANPUD):  I will discuss some of the Costa Rica because Central America, the size of California has seven different countries, seven different contexts […] Costa Rica does not criminalise for personal quantity, however police still accost and frisk people.  We all know that punitive drug policies deter people from accessing health services. At the end the government only uses one department for drug treatment. The minimum sentence in Costa Rica is 8 years. Most people in prison are in prison for this – minor offenses.  More than a quarter of people in prison – 60-70 % of women in prison are for minor drug offenses.

Juan Fernandez Ochoa (International Drug Policy Consortium): I would like to start zooming into the question of the criminal legal system. Punitive responses toward drug use and possession have led to widespread human rights violations, expressed in police violence, disproportionate sentences, and a systematic and harmful use of incarceration to address complex social problems. Thinking of your contexts, what promising change and innovations do you see in this regard?

Frida Ibarra (MUCD): The current government in Mexico has a campaign against addiction in 2020 “There is no happy ending”.  Some very limited policies have been implemented around cannabis, such as release people from prison for cannabis possession.  Only 8 states have implemented this in 2018. If the government approves amnesty…

Juan Fernandez Ochoa (International Drug Policy Consortium): Amnesty law is incredibly promising and interesting but as always, with our countries, there is a huge gap between what’s written in the law and how it’s implemented. But I know there are hopes in society and affected communities that it will be better implemented, because in theory, at least, it could be incredibly beneficial for a lot of people rooted in relation to punitive drug policies. Is it a similar situation in Colombia?

Adriana Muro (Elementa DDHH): No, but i think its good practice that we can use to move forward to have drug policy that has a human rights approach. The good news in Colombia is that in the last 2-3 years there has been a lot of movement in the Colombian institution for the regulation of the cannabis leaf, and hopefully the coca leaf in a few years. So this will be a very good advance in drug policy in Colombia.  There will also be a law about alternative sentencing.

Pablo Cymerman (intercambios A.C.): The data on arrests and imprisonment show that the Argentine “war against drug traffics” focuses on persecuting people whose detention does not affect the dismantling of the business or the networks of illegalities that propagate for its development. A large amount of State resources -police and judicial- are wasted in pursuing minor crimes. These crimes are generally committed by poor people.  At the same time, the police persecution of users is not generating a decrease in consumption levels. Despite years of punitive policies and increased incarceration, surveys show that drug use is increasing across all age groups and for all substances.  Throughout this prohibitionist cycle, the development of violence prevention measures and police performance control mechanisms is omitted.  The “war against drug trafficking” has consequences in the lives of thousands of people who are persecuted by the police and entered into the penal system. The security policy is limited to the police saturation of some neighbourhoods. The increase in the prison population and detainees in police stations causes overpopulation and overcrowding. Under these conditions, Argentine prisons record cases of torture, mistreatment and even the death of detainees. The imprisonment of women affects the quality of life of their sons, daughters and relatives under their care, because women with limited economic resources generally are the only breadwinner for the family. Their confinement leaves those in charge even more unprotected. In the name of “the fight against drug trafficking” the State is waging a war against the poor that shows no evidence of effectiveness against the drug market. The seriousness of the consequences of this war makes it necessary to explore new alternative intervention models to the total prohibition of substances. It is urgent to take measures in the short term to reduce arbitrariness and violations of rights. Some of these initial and urgent decisions to address the problems of prohibition and give rise to the development of alternative models are: decriminalizing consumption and facilitating access to the health system, generating differentiated responses to incarceration for people involved in retail or micro-trafficking that do not commit violent crimes, implement multi-agency policies in poor neighbourhoods that allow building vital horizons capable of competing with participation in illegal markets and discuss new indicators to evaluate policies against drug markets.

Ernesto Cortes (LANPUD): As I said in in Costa Rica there is a lot of stigma towards drug use.  We have seen a lot of people who use drugs such as trans/gay men that don’t tell doctors that they use drugs, because they wont get their medication.  Women get forced to go to rehab otherwise they won’t get access to ART. They still focus on abstinence and don’t recognise harm reduction as part of the health treatment.  There is also disproportionate sentencing – its the same punishment for any quantity of drugs – cannabis or crack.  Pre-trial detention is mandatory because the penalty is so high.  In 2013 there was a push for reform for women, such as those with children or health problems, the minimum sentence got reduced from 8 to 3 years – it shows promising results. There was another law focusing on minor offenses in general, but this depends on the judge or court to reduce stigma.

Juan Fernandez Ochoa (International Drug Policy Consortium): that is an incredibly pressing one of course, again, that disproportionately affects my views on gender, racial and economic alliances.

Frida Ibarra (MUCD): Since 1993 the armed forces have been involved in placed in charge of public security.  More than 3000 homicides were committed between 2007-2011. Nowadays this has been implemented at the constitutional level until 2028, without any plans to take them back to their original task.  There is no [?] transitional policy. There are no policies in the country that identify, investigate or punish for those responsible for human rights violations on the war on drugs. The regulation of cannabis has not arrived yet. Legalisation and regulation of the drug market will be an important step to undo all of these harms.

Juan Fernandez Ochoa (International Drug Policy Consortium): Thank you so much. I’m particularly thinking as you speak of how very often we don’t think as a country as being in a state of war.  The UN Drug Conventions are posited as means to advance welfare —but we know most states have historically implemented policies of warfare in relation to drugs. Latin American states have been at the helm of charting a new course, with many initiatives focused on truth, justice,  reparation and guarantees of non-repetition for people who have been victimised by prohibition-related militarisation and criminalisation. That experiences of peacebuilding would you highlight and what challenges do they face?

Adriana Muro (Elementa DDHH): I think the concept of peace building is really developed in Colombia.  Peacebuilding guarantees human rights.  There is a long way to implent the peace agreement and understanding the big themes of human rights violations. A mechanism of institutional justice that contains different conditions around drug policy. The report recognises that narco-trafficking is a persistent issue of […]. There’s a lot of recommendations that incorporate the peace-building approach. Regulate and challenge and fighting at the international level. We need to move forward to to regulate drug market. This is not an issue that Colombia should work alone on. We need a regional approach – an international conversation . This is an amazing opportunity for Latin America to move forward together, about the necessity regulate and to no longer have the drug use cover for human rights injustices. I hope our countries can sit down, have a conversation, and come here to discuss better drug policy.

Pablo Cymerman (intercambios A.C.): Since the approval of the Medicinal Cannabis Law in 2017, the debate over regulation has acquired great public importance and the demand to decriminalize the use of cannabis, especially for therapeutic-medicinal purposes but also for adult use, has broad social support. In 2020, with the change of government, the initial regulation of the law, which was very restrictive, was modified. Researchers and civil society organizations participated in the process. The new regulation created a registry that authorizes users, family members, third parties and NGOs to cultivate for medicinal, therapeutic and/or pain relief purposes, promotes public production, promotes scientific research and guarantees free access to people who do not have health coverage.  Last year, the Law for the Development of the Medical Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Industry was approved, which created the Regulatory Agency for the Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis Industry.  All these advances have not yet eased the police persecution and criminalization of cannabis users and growers. Even people registered in the registry have been the target of raids. In some of these cases, it is clear that the security forces were prevented from entering the home, but in others, unfortunately, the plants were seized and the growing space was completely destroyed. So, although these reforms represent a clear advance in the recognition of the rights of users of illegal psychoactive substances, they have also left behind a highly contradictory regulatory framework.  While criminal law admits the possibility of subjecting a person to compulsory treatment for an indefinite period through the courts, in the Mental Health Law, involuntary hospitalization is conceived as an exceptional therapeutic resource that can only be used when, at the discretion of the health team, there is a situation of certain and imminent risk to themselves or to third parties. But, in addition, the Narcotics Law is in contradiction with the Medicinal Cannabis Law. While the latter recognizes the therapeutic effects of the plant, criminal law continues to criminalize those who use and cultivate cannabis but are not registered.

Ernesto Cortes (LANPUD): There are several things hapeen in Costa Rica in the last few years, such as regulated cannabis laws. It’s still not clear, its still focused on industry. It’s definitely focused on industry so our fear its that its going to be another monoculture where small producers will not be part of it. There is also a push for recreational cannabis use – however this does not focus on health, rather it focuses on money ,There are several processes we are trying to push at the legislative level – such as decriminalisation, possession for personal use (police than has to prove trafficking), this is still has to be pushed through a conservative agenda , lots of religious people in government. We have created a drug user collective in Costa Rica mainly comprised of young people. We are also going to have the third LAMPUD general assembly in July this year. We want to push forward drug user human rights.

Juan Fernandez Ochoa (International Drug Policy Consortium): So that’s a great way to finalise because other than now was talking about peacebuilding and human rights and Ernesto takes us as to peace playing as opportunities for communities to demand those rights that have been historically denied to them. we have seven minutes and probably that we can take two or three questions if there are any questions in the room, or online.

Question: What will happen in the guerilla controlled areas?

Adriana Muro (Elementa DDHH): There are a lot of criminal groups, Colombia has the challenge of understanding of armed groups and narco-traffic groups.  There is currently a new law to negotiate with criminal groups and dissidents, so there is transitional justice challenge with groups that are still in the market, and to also guarantee social, economic rights.

Question: Have you thought about engaging in CICAD? If you can get to try if you’ve got the bandwidth, then you’ve got the institutional capacity to engage with CICAD because it’s another regional forum where member states get together. Chile and Mexico both collaborated on talking about stigma in the approach of talking about drug policy.

Pablo Cymerman (intercambios A.C.): We are involved with CICAD for the last 20 years.  But CICAD is an organisation who used to change with the presidency that they have. And no matter which president, the states have very strong influence. We’ve tried to involve civil society for years, and after a lot of words we could introduce a panel of civil society as part of the agenda of the CICAD, but they have stole our space. We worked for it, and then the Trump administration took the space. Now I think that things will change again with pressure from certain countries like Uruguay. The last CICAD meeting had a nice gendered approach to drug policy  It was part of our work.  […] is the president this year. We used to fight with CICAD, we don’t like some of their mechanisms, but anyways, every country goes there, so we had to be there to control what they do, and to ask them to introduce this issue to change their agenda.

Adriana Muro (Elementa DDHH): We have been trying for the last 4-5 years to go to the assembly and talk about drug policy and human rights, and thinking about how we can apply other regional approaches to the situation.

Pablo Cymerman (intercambios A.C.): We work with the human rights commission, and the assembly, they have to make some influence on CICAD.

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