What Will Javier Milei Mean for People Who Use Drugs in Argentina?

    Argentina has just experienced a political earthquake. On November 19, Javier Milei, a rightwing self-described “anarcho-capitalist,” won a runoff election to become president-elect. His inflammatory rhetoric saw him emerge from a background as a libertarian economist and media pundit to win 56 percent of the national vote, comfortably defeating center-left opponent Sergio Massa. Political observers were taken aback by Milei’s following among younger voters, and the failure of Argentina’s Peronist establishment to stop his rise.

    Milei has received most attention for his radical economic agenda, as the country faces rocketing inflation and increasing poverty. His controversial pledges include “dollarizing” the economy, shutting down the central bank and large-scale cuts to public spending that he signified by bringing a chainsaw to rallies. He wants to abolish, for example, the country’s ministries of environment, science, culture, and women and diversity; and to combine the ministries of social development, public health and education under one “Ministry of Human Capital.” He also opposes abortion rights and wants to hold a referendum on ending access.

    But Milei will face major challenges implementing his agenda, when his Liberty Advances party holds only a small minority of seats in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. And this reality—together with his limited and vague statements on drugs—makes his likely impact on Argentine drug policy harder to assess.

    His refusal to “pay the bill” will have a bigger impact on people who use drugs than whether or not he supports legalization.

    In contrast to other rightwing leaders he’s been compared to, like former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Milei has spoken in favor of drug legalization in a “free society.” Yet he summarizes his attitude by describing drug use as a form of gradual suicide. He has stated: “If you want to commit suicide, I have no problem with that, but don’t ask me to pay the bill. If you’re not going to take responsibility for your decisions, it seems unfair to me.”

    This refusal to “pay the bill” will have a bigger impact on people who use drugs than whether or not Milei supports legalization or decriminalization. But Milei is willing to pay the bill to continue the country’s war on trafficking organizations.

    “If you look at his few comments about drug use, he seems profoundly uninformed and open to saying stupid shit, like he does in so many other areas,” Ethan Nadelmann, founder and former executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told Filter. “I think there is a possibility this is a guy who could openly say, let’s legalize cannabis or provoke a bigger discussion … [But] keep in mind he is utterly hostile to any progressive social welfare legislation that would help people struggling with drug addiction. His thing is, ‘Get the government out of the way, let people do what they want to do, but if they stumble, fuck ’em.'”

    Overall, there is relatively low prevalence of injecting drug use in Argentina, said Virginia Labiano, a political scientist at the National University of San Martín and postdoctoral scholarship recipient from the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research. “In the 1990s, injection cocaine use was common,” she told Filter, “but heroin, and opioids in general, passed us by.”

    A much wider issue, she said, “is consumption of [coca] base paste, or paco, but in reality it has very little cocaine. It’s linked to use among vulnerable populations … In general there is very little awareness or advocacy of harm reduction.”

    Harm Reduction International (HRI) meanwhile estimated that 11,500 people in Argentina inject drugs. Among them, nearly half were living with HIV and more than half with hepatitis C.

    HRI also reported that Argentina has no sanctioned syringe programs that would reduce transmissions of blood-borne diseases; no peer distribution of naloxone; no access to safer smoking supplies; and no safe consumption sites. The country does have opioid agonist treatment, though more people enter treatment for cocaine use. HRI noted that some harm reduction measures, like drug checking at parties, may be available through community groups. In the realm of tobacco harm reduction, meanwhile, sales of nicotine vapes are banned.

    Still, current federal law, according to the Argentine Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, guarantees an “integrated approach” to dealing with “problematic consumption.” This includes community prevention centers where people who use drugs can find out about what resources and services are available to them. All health providers must provide drug treatment services at no cost as part of universal health coverage. Services must respect “individual autonomy” and “apply the harm reduction model,” to improve quality of life and prevent harms like overdose. Under this model, people are also given help in completing school, or getting a job.

    According to Labiano, though, these protections exist more on paper than in reality (what’s more, the executive branch is responsible for implementing them).

    “He wants to privatize public health—this will limit access for many people, drug users or no, but who lack access to health and social resources.”

    Yet a president on a mission to gut public funding is an obvious threat to those services that do exist. Argentina’s government-funded health care is a clear target: Milei has proposed rolling back subsidies for hospitals and privatizing them.

    “He wants to privatize public health—this will limit access for many people, drug users or no, but who lack access to health and social resources,” Pablo Cymerman told Filter. The founder and director of Argentine drug policy research and advocacy group Intercambios Asociación Civil, he’s also a professor of psychology and social sciences at the University of Buenos Aires. “We are very concerned about this, and this obviously could mean an end to free services for people with problematic substance use.”

    Argentina’s drug policy is overdue for an overhaul, after a landmark legal decision. In August 2009, the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that the federal prohibition on drug possession for personal use was unconstitutional. But this court ruling alone guarantees nothing; police are left with the discretion to continue making arrests, and judges to decide if the charges are warranted. Congress has failed to pass any new law complying with the court’s decision, leaving a legal gray area.

    Cymerman has no confidence Milei will support a decriminalization bill, if it even comes up again. “It’s not an issue on the agenda right now,” he said, “and Milei has risen to power allied with the most conservative political groups in the country, that are very reluctant to support these ideas—and in fact speak against decriminalization, let alone legalization or regulation [of drugs].”

    Argentina’s drug war began in the 1970s, with federal legislation that codified drug offenses. The current statute was approved in 1989. It sets penalties of between 4-15 years in prison for trafficking charges, and one month to two years for simple possession. A prison sentence for lower-level charges may be waived if the person undergoes treatment or education courses.

    According to the Transnational Institute, Argentina today is primarily a “transit” country for cocaine. Cities like Rosario have seen escalating violence reportedly linked to conflict between drug trafficking groups.

    Concerns about crime and drugs played a role in the recent election. Milei’s Liberty Advances party platform features measures like reducing the age of criminal immunity, deregulating firearms and privatizing some prisons. Unlike the cuts it urges elsewhere, it promises to expand the role of the federal police by increasing training, equipment and technology. According to Chequeado, Milei has vowed to prioritize fighting drug trafficking.

    “If Milei does what he says he wants to, it will be disastrous for many Argentinians.”

    Milei and Vice President-elect Victoria Villarruel are reportedly promising to empower a National Internal Security Council to coordinate federal and local anti-trafficking efforts in cities like Rosario, with a focus on underage drug use.

    “There is talk of legalizing drug consumption, but this does not discourage associated crimes,” Villaruel told La Nacion. “In Uruguay, marijuana was legalized but crime continued, as people obtain drugs with a greater hallucinogenic effect than those sold legally.” Villarruel has proposed that the Argentine military deploy on the streets of the nation’s cities, working with police—an idea that even some military sources have reportedly rejected.

    “It would be a mistake to involve military forces in internal security problems,” Cymerman said. “Their job is for conflicts outside the country, not to meddle in domestic issues. To militarize the response [to civil problems] has been harmful to the people and countries wherever it has been tried.”

    This of course, includes Argentina, which experienced a brutal military dictatorship from 1976-83, supported by the United States.

    Altogether, Milei’s election victory looks ominous for people who use drugs and many others, even if his more radical proposals are tempered by the legislature and courts.

    “We don’t know what will happen,” Cymerman said. “I don’t want to be too pessimistic. If Milei does what he says he wants to, it will be disastrous for many Argentinians. I hope his ‘libertarian’ ideas would be applied to the market for drugs, because that would be true liberty. We have very difficult years ahead of us in economic and social terms.”



    Photograph of Milei in 2022 by Ilan Berkenwald via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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