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Consumers are the most affected by the drug war

Despite political posturing, courts spend more time on consumers than traffickers

If the usual weekend headlines in Rosario are anything to go by, the so-called “war on drugs” in the country continues in full force. Eleven people were detained there this weekend — a rare, homicide-free weekend this year in the city 300 kilometres north of Buenos Aires — along with weapons, cash, mobile phones and drugs.

For months now, the debate on how to tackle the problem has continued uninterrupted with much of the focus on Rosario, which has come to symbolize the nation’s struggle against drug trafficking.

An analysis of the statistics show, however, that despite the political posturing against traffickers, heavy-handed legislation on drugs has resulted in imprisoning drug consumers more than the big distributors of illegal substances.

Punishing the nation’s drug crimes is mostly the purview of Law 23,737, which was approved by the nation’s Congress in 1989, just as Peronist president Carlos Menem was coming into power. It established a four- to 15-year sentence for people convicted of producing or selling illicit drugs and an eight- to 20-year conviction for those leading or financing a criminal organization.

In line with local judicial tradition, drug possession was prohibited regardless of whether the drug was for personal use, with a sentence of up to six years in prison, and a minimum of one. If a defendant could prove he or she planned to consume the drugs, the conviction would then be lowered to between one month and two years, with the possibility of the person receiving medical treatment and, therefore, avoiding imprisonment.

Objective: consumers

Although convictions are clearly harsher for those at the top of the trafficking pyramid, it was consumers who were most intensely pursued by law enforcement.

From 1991 to 2009, the last year for which data are available, there were more people arrested and charged with drug possession than trafficking.

There were 4,109 arrests for drug possession in 1991 and 1,889 for dealing. The gap widened every year since, with 48,730 people arrested for drug possession in 2009, compared to 8,118 for dealing — meaning 86 percent of those who passed through the courts were there for possessing a small amount of drugs.

On average, during the 1992-1998 period, drug possession accounted for 60 percent of arrests, while this figure soared to 70 percent between 1999 and 2005, Sedronar reported. That means the courts are spending much more time on users than dealers.

In the 2002-2010 period, 44.8 percent of people formally accused of having violated the anti-drug law had to face trial because of alleged drug dealing. Meanwhile, 9,416 people faced the same outcome because of simple possession (24.49 percent) and 11,805 (30.71 percent) for personal use.

Despite spending more time on users, there were more convictions for those found to be producing or selling narcotics. During the 2002-2010 period, 16,883 people were found guilty of violating law 23,737. Between them, 8,827 were sentenced for drug dealing, while 3,992 were charged for simple possession and 3,872 for personal use.

The most common drugs involved in those arrests were cannabis (61 percent) and cocaine (23 percent). Since 1990, seized marijuana soared from 658 kilos (1990) to 91.87 tons (2009). Meanwhile, seized cocaine climbed from one ton in the early 1990s to 12.56 tons in 2009.

The year 2009 may have been tipping point in this history of drug trafficking in Argentina. That is when the Supreme Court ruled that criminalizing possession of marijuana for personal use was unconstitutional, so long as there was no harm done to any third party.

This may be the reason behind a slight change in the trend. Following Procunar statistics — which is part of the Prosecutor General’s office — in 2012, almost 25,000 cases were opened in the courts: personal consumption accounted for 38.2 percent of them, while dealing 35.2 percent.

Only three percent of drug cases result in contraband-related charges — meaning that most police and legal resources are being used to pursue individual drug users, Procunar said in a recent report.

Inmates on drug charges are the second-largest group in the federal penitentiary system. In 2013, they represented 29.2 percent of all prisoners (2,864 of 9,807). The only category of crimes that is higher is that against property crimes, with 40.26 percent (3949). Only 44 percent of those detained in the federal penitentiary system had been found guilty in a trial.

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