WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
28 May 2014 | News

New Study Evaluates State Responses to Drug Consumption in the Americas

Press Release
July 9, 2014 
Washington, D.C.—Today, the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD) published a new study that assesses state responses to illicitly used drugs in eight countries in Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay.

The study entitled “In Search of Rights: Drug Users and State Responses in Latin America” ​​found that Latin American governments’ approach to drug use continues to be predominantly through the criminal justice system, not health institutions. Even in countries where consumption is not a crime, persistent criminalization of drug users is common.

“The responses that criminalize drug users are usually more harmful for consumers and society in general than consumption itself,” said Catalina Pérez Correa, researcher at the Mexican Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) and co-editor of the study. “The use of prisons to prevent consumption has serious negative consequences. If, for example, a student is imprisoned for carrying drugs for personal use, his or her whole future is jeopardized—in addition to being exposed to high levels of drug consumption, which are common in Latin American prisons. After being released, he or she will not only have to deal with the stigma of being a consumer, but also with the stigma of having been incarcerated, which makes it difficult to find a job. His or her family will also suffer, given the reduced family income, legal expenses, and the like. Such damage cannot be compared to that of smoking marijuana. That’s why we insist that states’ responses should be from a health perspective and not a punitive one.”

The study also finds that the penal response contributes to a climate of stigmatization and discrimination against users, which negatively affects their ability to be considered impartially by police and judicial system. This discrimination also prevents drug users who need medical attention from seeking assistance.

Finally, this way of addressing the issue through the criminal justice system violates several fundamental rights of users, such as the right to health, information, personal autonomy, and self-determination, among others. All of these transgressions violate various national and international human rights standards that states are obliged to protect.

In all of the countries studied, CEDD found that drug users are criminally persecuted, even in countries where consumption is not a crime. In Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, and Bolivia, using drugs is not a crime. According to the Argentine study, however, nearly 75 percent of legal infractions reported by the security forces of the Federal Criminal Jurisdiction of the City of Buenos Aires were for possession of narcotics for personal consumption. In Ecuador, there are currently 5,103 people convicted and hence incarcerated for drug possession out of a total of 6,467 detainees for all drug-related offenses. Between 2009 and May 2013 in Mexico, 140,860 people were arrested at the federal level for drug use. For that same charge and during that same time period, 53,769 investigations were initiated in the federal system. Between 2005 and 2011 in Bolivia, 6,316 people were detained for drug possession (mostly cannabis).

“The report points to the need to make deep and immediate policy reforms aimed at the illicit use of drugs, including decriminalization of possession for personal consumption and government investment in evidence-based treatment programs,” said Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and co-editor of the study.

To read the report, please click here.

About the CEDD:

The Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (CEDD) brings together researchers from eight Latin American countries to analyze the impact of criminal law and legal practices toward illicitly used drugs.


Argentina: Alejandro Corda, Araceli Galante and Diana Rossi, Intercambios A.C.
Bolivia: Gloria Rose Marie de Achá, Andean Action (Acción Andina)
Brazil: Luciana Boiteux, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro); João Pedro Chaves, Fluminense Federal University (Universidade Federal Fluminense)
Colombia: Rodrigo Uprimny, Diana Esther Guzmán, Jorge Alberto and Carolina Parra Bernal, Dejusticia
Ecuador: Jorge Vicente Paladines, Simón Bolivar Andean University (Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, UASB)
Mexico: Catalina Pérez Correa and Karen Silva, Center for Economic Research and Teaching (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE)
Netherlands: Pien Metaal, Transnational Institute (TNI)
Peru: Ricardo Soberón, Center for Drug Research and Human Rights (Centro de Investigación Drogas y Derechos Humanos, CIDDH)
USA: Coletta Youngers, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
Uruguay: Gianella Bardazano. Institute for Legal and Social Studies of Uruguay (Instituto de Estudios Legales y Sociales del Uruguay, IELSUR)

For more information, please contact:

Coletta A. Youngers
Senior Fellow, WOLA
[email protected]
Office: +1 (202) 797-2171