CADIZ, Spain (Reuters) - Latin American countries are turning to Europe for lessons on fighting narcotics abuse after souring on the prohibition-style approach of the violent and costly U.S.-led war on drugs.Until recently, most Latin American countries had zero-tolerance rules on drugs inspired by the United States.But now countries from Brazil to Guatemala are exploring relaxing penalties for personal use of narcotics, following examples such as Spain and Portugal that have channelled resources to prevention rather than clogging jails.
Latin America is the top world producer of cocaine and marijuana, feeding the huge demand in the United States and Europe. Domestic drug use has risen and drug gang violence has caused carnage for decades from the Mexican-U.S. border to the slums of Brazil.On Thursday, Uruguay's Congress moved a step closer to putting the state in charge of distributing legal marijuana. On the same day a leftist lawmaker in Mexico presented a bill to legalise production, sale and use of marijuana.
While the Mexican bill is unlikely to pass, it reflects growing debate over how to fight drug use in a country where 60,000 people have died since 2006 in turf battles between drug traffickers and clashes between cartels and security forces.Even top world cocaine producer Colombia, a stalwart U.S. partner in drug crop eradication campaigns and with one of the toughest anti-drug laws in Latin America, is hinting at change.Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on Thursday it was worth exploring the Portuguese model, one of the most liberal drug policies in the world. "The experience that you have had with drug consumption policies is very interesting to us. The entire world is looking for new ways to deal with the problem. I hope to learn more and more about the experience you have had," he said on a visit to Lisbon.
Santos stopped in Portugal on his way to the Ibero-American summit in the Spanish city of Cadiz. Leaders there on Saturday called for analysing a shift toward regulating drug use rather than criminalising it.
Portugal decriminalised all drug use in 2001 to combat a serious heroin problem that had caused an outbreak of HIV/Aids among drug users. The shift has been hailed as a success story as consumption
levels dropped below the European average.
"The positive evaluation of Portugal's model has taken away the fear in Latin America over reforms," said Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute, which advocates the liberalisation of drug laws in Latin America.
Spain - where drug consumption soared in the 1980s after the end of the Franco dictatorship - has tried to fight high cocaine use by emphasizing treatment programmes for addicts and declining to prosecute possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use.
Jelsma said cannabis initiatives such as Uruguay's have built on the experience in Catalonia and the Basque Country, in northern Spain, where the courts tolerate marijuana cultivation for personal use by members of social clubs.
(Fiona Ortiz, the Star Online, 17 November 2012)
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