Friday, May 1, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 1, 2015

Rewriting the hemisphere's drug policies

Drug use in the Americas
New drugs are an upcoming challenge for the hemisphere's drug policies, according to an OAS report released on Wednesday. New Pyschoactive Substances (NPS), which have become an issue in the Americas in recent years, are not regulated under international conventions and involve a serious threat to public health. They will demand new approaches to regulation, according to "Report on Drug Use in the Americas 2015."

The report was presented on Wednesday as part of the OAS's Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) session. The OAS wants to move the regional drug policy towards a public health focus, and away from jail as a response for users. Member states gathered this week to begin development of a strategy for the next five years. The issues they addressed include new psychoactive substances, medical marijuana, the use of evidence in the design of regulated systems and reflections on policies aimed at the decriminalization of drug use.

Though drug use in the region does not follow one clear trend, the report notes that drug use is correlated to low perception of risk in use, ease of obtaining the drugs and larger numbers of offers to buy or try the substances. The high level of use across the region points to substance abuse prevention policy failures.

The report received moderate press around the region.

La Vanguardia and La República report that marijuana use doubled among Uruguayan high schoolers over the past decade. It's worth noting that the rest of the countries in the Southern Cone saw similar increases over that time period -- except for Perú where consumption decreased. Chilean teens lead the region: 30 percent of high school students reported using marijuana in the past year.

Argentina's La Voz notes that cocaine use among high school students in South America is higher than in other subregions. Chile again leads the ranking, followed by Argentina and Colombia. Uruguay's El Observador also focuses on adult cocaine use. Uruguay leads the hemisphere, with nearly 2 percent of adults reporting cocaine consumption in the past year. It's followed by the U.S. and Canada.

Venezuela's El Nacional focuses the spread of heroin in the region, use of which was previously confined to Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, according to the report. Heroin consumption was reported in Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. 

Mexico's El Universal focuses on the NPS issue, noting that while many of the substances are synthetic, a few are of vegetable origin, such as Oaxaca's hallucinogenic Salvia divinorum

Alternatives to Incarceration
Speakers at the CICAD session, including OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, emphasized the need to reexamine how people are sent to jail for drug offenses, reports La Vanguardia.

Offenses related to illegal possession, sale and trafficking of drugs are penalized with long prison sentences -- often out of proportion to the scale of the offenses committed and their threat to public health or security, according to a report presented at the session. The Technical Report on Alternatives to Incarceration for Drug-Related Offenses notes the important prison overcrowding problem -- and concomitant human rights violations -- faced by many countries in the region. 

The working group offers a menu of policy options to avoid jail sentences in cases that don't merit them, including: decriminalization or depenalization, diversion from the judicial system, non-custodial sanctions (such as probation or community service), and proportionality: that the punishment for a particular crime should reflect the degree of harm caused to society 

World Regulation Trends
On a broader note, The Economist, while not reporting on the CICAD findings, writes about polarized world approaches to illicit drugs: while Western countries are softening their stance and focusing on health issues, countries in Asia and the Middle East routinely execute drug offenders. Indonesia made headlines this week when it executed 8 people convicted of smuggling illicit drugs, despite international outcry and diplomatic pressure. America's softening stance on recreational drugs might lead a push to reform the U.N. conventions that regulate them, but new "drug warriors" such as Russia and China will battle for strengthening bans, according to the piece.

News Briefs

  • Venezuela is facing increasing criticism from Europe, the U.S. and international bodies like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This, together with the poor economic situation that has led to rampant inflation and food shortages, has pushed President Nicolás Maduro to seek economic and ideological support from allies such as China, Iran and Qatar, writes Timothy Gill on Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights.
  • Colombia's Supreme Court called for an investigation of former president Alvaro Uribe's alleged role in organizing a spy ring that illegally intercepted his opponents' communications, reports the AP. Uribe's former intelligence chief  and his ex secretary general were sentenced to 14 and eight years of jail in the same case yesterday, reports AFP. The espionage activities involved tracking and eavesdropping on prominent journalists, leftist politicians, rights workers and others, according to the Wall Street Journal
  • Brazil's Workers' Party (PT) received a 1.6 million dollar fine for accounting irregularities. The electoral authority's decision blocks the party from receiving federal funding for three months, reports EFE.
  • A U.S. federal judge dismissed a defamation case brought by a former ambassador against two Venezuelan businessmen, saying the court does not have jurisdiction as the two men do not live in New York. Otto Reich, George W. Bush's top Latin America diplomat brought a case against the two Venezuelans under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal law known as RICO, and used mostly against organized crime groups, explains the Wall Street Journal.
  • Argentina's volatile peso and restrictive banking system makes it the perfect petri-dish for Bitcoin, explains Nathaniel Popper in a New York Times Magazine piece. Bitcoin, a virtual currency, is getting an important toe-hold in Argentina where users are looking to get around restrictions on buying dollars (important for preserving savings against inflation) and are suspicious of the banking sector. 
  • Chile's Calbuco volcano erupted for a third time in just over a week, spewing even more ash. Chilean authorities are evacuating a further 1,500 people from a 12 mile exclusion area around the volcano, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • The New York Times reviews a MOMA exhibition on Latin American development architecture. The show covers 1955-1980, "a not-so-distant time when architects and governments together dreamed big about changing the world for the better."

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