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Argentina could save lives if it legalized recreational cannabis
A broad medicinal cannabis law was passed in 2020. Now, advocates want full legalization.
On a sweltering night in January 2019, Camilo Caupolican Escobar went to see his weed dealer. While he was there, two more visitors arrived: a friend and a man they didn’t know who had arranged to make a big purchase. Half way through the deal, the man pulled a gun and started shouting, claiming to be a policeman. There was a scuffle and the man shot Camilo in the chest. He died at the scene.
“He was a normal guy,” his father, Óscar Escobar, told Pirate Wire Services outside a Buenos Aires court, during a protest over lengthy delays to the murder inquiry. “He liked football, playing PlayStation, he had a girlfriend and he worked as a courier.” As we spoke, Camilo’s former partner arrived. Clutching her arm was Camilo’s seven-year-old daughter, wearing a baggy T-shirt that reached almost to her knees. Printed on the front was a smiling photo of the father she would never see again.
In Argentina, cannabis advocates say that making cannabis legal would open a promising new industry and cut down on the drug violence that claimed Camilo’s life. Argentina’s president Alberto Fernández has said that legalizing cannabis is “a debate that will have to be had at some point” and that tobacco and alcohol cause harm too, views shared by some in his ruling Frente de Todos coalition.
Weed is not legal in Argentina, but it’s not fully illegal, either. In November 2020, the government passed a permissive medicinal cannabis law allowing it to be prescribed for any pathology as long as there’s clinical evidence that it helps. Those with a prescription can grow their own, get it from a friend, or join a growers’ club, as long as they register with the government. A law regulating the production of cannabis and hemp for medicinal and industrial purposes is currently making its way through congress.
Although recreational use is not legal, the supreme court ruled in 2009 that it was unconstitutional to punish adults for consuming drugs in their own homes as long as they weren’t supplying anyone else.
Argentines wondering what legalization might look like need only look across the River Plate to Uruguay, which legalized recreational cannabis in 2013. Nationals and residents who register with the government can buy up to 10 grams a week over the counter in pharmacies or grow their own, and the government is currently evaluating whether to start selling to tourists too.
It’s hard to say what the long-term effects of this will be, since this would require research on everything from psychiatric disorders to car crash rates, but evidence suggests it’s keeping smokers safer: they’re consuming better-quality product and spending less time in contact with the black market.
A festival in favour of cannabis legalization outside Argentina’s national congress
In June, Mexico’s supreme court voted that penalizing recreational use was unconstitutional, but so far, Uruguay is the only Latin American country to fully legalize the leaf.
In Argentina, a “drug war”-style approach during the administration of centre-right president Mauricio Macri (2015-2019) gave cops perverse incentives to arrest and imprison more people. The number of people jailed for drug offenses rose by nearly 50% between 2015 and 2017 and drug arrests in Buenos Aires province tripled between 2006 and 2017 - not because of a drug usage crisis but because it appears that police were increasingly detaining people for trivial offenses, according to a report by human rights NGO, the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS).
It’s generally small-scale dealers and runners, not major traffickers, who end up in prison. That includes young men in the slums, but also single mothers living in poverty, selling drugs to scrape together a living while raising their children alone, according to work by Buenos Aires province’s human rights ombudsman.
“We have a drug policy that makes no sense,” said Victoria Darraidou, coordinator of CELS’ citizen security and police violence team. “It criminalizes poor people, has enormous costs, and has no effect on the big trafficking organizations.”
In Camilo’s case, there’s evidence that the killer was either a policeman, or connected to the police. He was killed on a broad, leafy middle-class street with a chic gelato shop on the corner. There would usually be routine police patrols in the area, but that day they weren’t there, according to Oscar. Witnesses say the killer was spotted returning for his motorbike just minutes later, but wasn’t detained, and the security cameras had mysteriously stopped working.
That Argentina’s police are involved in drugs and gangs is news to no-one. In October 2020, Paraguayan prosecutors found a Buenos Aires provincial police helicopter in a hangar they were raiding as part of an investigation into a major Brazilian trafficker. In another high-profile case in March 2019, an officer was killed in a shootout between federal police and a gang of local officers who had been attempting to extort a woman in the Buenos Aires suburb of Avellaneda.
Despite these issues, convincing the nation’s conservative opposition to support legalization would likely be complicated. Maria Eugenia Vidal, former governor of Buenos Aires province within the conservative Juntos por el Cambio coalition, said in August: “It’s one thing to smoke a joint in [trendy barrio] Palermo on a Saturday night, with your friends, relaxed, or with your partner, or alone, and it’s another to live in [the informal settlements], surrounded by narcos, and they offer it to you.” Her comments were excoriated as classist.
Recent surveys suggest support is around 55% for legalization and 65% for decriminalization. Business intelligence company Kantar’s head of qualitative studies, Gabriela Portantiero, told local news: “It’s emerging from secrecy and starting to be seen as something natural.”
Camilo’s case has been plagued by delays, as judges attempt to pass the case off onto each other or complain about a lack of forensic materials. His family knows that changing the law won’t bring him back. But when asked whether things would have gone differently if cannabis were legal, Oscar responds: “For sure. Drugs kill in a lot of ways. And the police complicity in this case was impressive.”
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