Uruguay's President Jose Mujica and its ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition have been widely praised for backing a bill which aims to regulate the country’s marijuana market. But FA lawmakers are currently debating a separate bill on forced drug treatment, an issue which has earned criticism from many of the same human rights and drug policy advocates who applauded the marijuana initiative.
Uruguay’s marijuana bill, which passed the lower house on July 31, is currently on hold as the Senate Health Committee goes through other items on its legislative agenda. Among the bills the committee is slated to debate is one which would allow judges to order individuals showing “severely altered mental states produced by narcotic drugs” to undergo compulsory treatment.
The forced treatment bill, which was based on a proposal of President Mujica’s, has been significantly altered by legislators. As Radio 180 notes, Senator Ernesto Agazzi -- a member of Mujica’s Popular Participation Movement (MPP) party -- has amended its language to avoid any police involvement in the process. The current version of the bill would charge a panel of health professionals with authorizing forced treatment cases, and would be overseen by a judge. According to Agazzi, “Now the law has a health care outlook, and not a repressive one.”
Despite the stated intention of the law, however, forced treatment is a contentious issue from a human rights perspective. It is frequently used as a method of cleaning the streets of “undesirable” social elements, individuals from society’s most vulnerable sectors who have no say in the terms and extent of their confinement. Critics of compulsory treatment, like UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez, argue that it amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment, and in some cases torture. In March 2012, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime joined 11 other UN institutions in condemning forced treatment, calling for the closure of drug detention centers “without delay.”
On top of its controversial nature, forced treatment has been shown to lack effectiveness, with patients showing higher rates of recidivism than in voluntary clinical settings. As The Economist reported in April, experts say compulsory treatment initiatives in São Paulo, Brazil, are less successful than outpatient treatment centers.
In Uruguay, some of the biggest critics of the forced treatment measure are supporters of the marijuana regulation bill. These include the Institute for Legal and Social Studies (IELSUR) and the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ), both of which are vocal members of Regulacion Responsable, the civil society coalition backing the marijuana measure. On Monday, the two human rights groups released a joint statement condemning the compulsory treatment bill as part of “an ongoing construction of more punitive and repressive policies” in Uruguay. In a previous interview with news magazine Brecha, IELSUR spokeswoman Gianella Bardazano accused the Frente Amplio coalition of politicizing drug policies in the country, asserting that the forced treatment bill was meant as a political counterweight to the marijuana bill (which remains largely unpopular). “It seems [the FA] put a little of this, a little of that [in its security policies] in order to satisfy all sensitivities and not lose votes,” Bardazano told the paper.
Some in the ruling coalition appear to agree with this assessment. Last week FA Senator Constanza Moreira, who sits on the Health Committee, criticized the compulsory treatment bill as “repressive,” and told La Diaria that she was in favor of postponing it to take up debate on marijuana, an issue with wider support in the Frente Amplio. However, it seems this bid was unsuccessful. On Tuesday El Pais reported that the FA leadership has resolved that the marijuana regulation bill will not go to the Senate floor until mid-October.
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