Florencia Corbelle analyses the growing influence in Argentina of civil society, in the design and debate of public policies in the legislative arena, using the 2011 drug law reform debate as a case study. In 2011, comprehensive drug law reform bills began to be debated in Argentina’s National Congress. The debate included various actors, organisations and social groups that have been advocating for the rights of illegal psychoactive substance users for many years. By 2011, these activists had successfully managed to get the issue onto the public agenda and state the need for thoughtful parliamentary debate. Although the reforms ultimately failed to materialise, Corbelle argues that increased civil society engagement in this institutional scenario has brought about significant changes in the way that people and parliamentarians seek ‘to do’ politics, as well as laying bare  political and identarian conflicts between ‘the established’ and ‘the outsiders’.

Global Marijuana March, Argentina (image courtesy of Revista THC)

In 2011, comprehensive drug law reform bills began to be debated in Argentina’s National Congress. The debate promised high attendance levels and broad civil society engagement. Various actors, organizations and social groups advocating for the rights of illegal psychoactive substance users have for years been deploying a range of strategies, both inside and outside state bureaucracies and institutions, in a bid to change the prohibitionist paradigm currently guiding state intervention. This paradigm persecutes, stigmatizes and criminalizes so-called “drug users”. By 2011, the activists successfully managed to get the issue onto the public agenda and state the need for thoughtful parliamentary debate.

What was seen in 2011 as imminent, in terms of debating drug laws could hardly have been imagined two decades earlier. Prior to 2001, the only feasible advocacy methods and strategies were holding sporadic meetings with civil servants, undertaking strategic litigation, generating and disseminating research, designing educational campaigns, spreading information using mass media, and organizing conferences and public demonstrations. It was not until the economic, social and political crisis into which Argentina was plunged by the turn of the millennium that this political scenario, which severely restricted civil society participation in various state agencies and institutions, began to change. Yet, despite the significant corpus of studies by historians and political scientists on parliament and parliamentary debates, the growing influence of civil society in the design and debate of public policies in the legislative arena remained unexplored.

Drug law reform bills began to be debated in the Prevention of Drug Addiction and Control of Drug Dealing Committee in the Chamber of Deputies.[1] Civil society’s engagement was immediate, as predicted. Only two months had passed when the chairmen of both the Prevention of Drug Addiction and Control of Drug Dealing and the Human Rights Committees, who were also authors of bills that were under debate, called for a public hearing. Lawmakers aside, attendees included judges, lawyers, civil servants of the Executive Branch, members of religious institutions, journalists, and range of social organizations.

Public hearings had been part of a reform package introduced after the 2001 crisis aiming to increase civil society’s engagement in this institutional scenario. However, these amendments to parliamentary regulations have not only created new and more popular spaces of discussion. They have also generated profound changes in the ways in which parliamentarians “militate for” bills,[2] build alliances, and generate consensus and political agreements – in short, the ways in which parliamentarians do politics and, therefore, the ways in which advisors and legislators conceived, reflected upon, and even valued their own work.

In fact, during the two-year long debate on drug law reform, not only did civil society play an active role in many meetings, but bills were drafted with support and cooperation from social organizations, committee review drafts were sent out to organizations for their consideration in advance, and activists were given interviews, and received in offices and other workplaces. These transformations have been, if not encouraged, at least welcomed by legislators, who have shown appreciation for civil society’s – in other words, ‘outsiders’– contributions to enriching their work, broadening consensus, and endowing bills with legitimacy and political strength. But it is also true that legislators consider it necessary to establish limits to citizens’ participation, in order to limit the threat this might pose to lawmakers’ prerogatives as elected representatives of the people.

Thus, it can be said that since civil society burst into this institutional scenario two conflicts have emerged and intertwined and become core in drug law reform debates, and indeed other parliamentary debates. The first is of a political nature, where the logic of alliances prevails. The second is of an identitarian nature, characterized on one hand by ‘outsiders’ demands to be recognized as suitable interlocutors, and on the other hand by advisors’ and legislators’ – ‘the established’– efforts to define and demarcate the previously implicit and unproblematic boundaries that separate them from civil society.

Moreover, civil society organizations’ strivings to lay down the basis of their authority and legitimacy to participate in parliamentary debate, that is, to be admitted into the socially legitimate group of debaters in the National Congress on the basis of their experience and expertise, have revealed two things. The first is that outsider’s organizations have uneven access to material and symbolic resources and, therefore, different possibilities of achieving this goal; and the second is that they have also put their own stamp on the pre-existing logic of alliances, consensus and political agreements that has characterised this political scenario for more than a century.

In this sense, the political debate between those in favour of and those against reforming current drug law in Argentina can be thought of as a series of successive trials by collective oath.[3] That is, in this type of conflict settlement procedure what was at stake at every stage of the parliamentary debate on drug law reform was not so much the arguments put forward for and against, but the ability of each side to gather as many people as possible willing to swear in support of their perspective. Hence, the crux of the matter was to be found in the negotiations, accusations and conspiracies that took place outside the institutional debate setting as a result of each group’s determination to gain support for their own cause and emerge victorious from the conflict.

Unfortunately, Argentina’s drug law reform bills were defeated. More accurately, debate reached a deadlock as prohibitionists managed to impose the need for an all-round plan to address problematic drug use – a demand worthy of consideration – before moving on to any consideration of drug law reformation. Hence, as this and other debates show, civil society’s engagement in parliamentary debates cannot be simply equated with conquest of rights. Still, we should not overlook the fact that increasing civil society participation has given voice to a large number of groups and organizations who usually lack it; has granted their demands more visibility; and has engaged a wide-ranging public, if not in bill-drafting, then at least in parliamentary debate; while encouraging alliance-building processes and the development of shared political languages among lawmakers, civil servants and various social groups.

Specifically, during the drug law reform debate, the concept of human rights –understood as moral value and local justice paradigm – emerged as a shared political language that allowed both alliance-weaving and agreement-settling between different anti-prohibitionist groups (i.e. those favourable to the reform of current law regulations). This shared language also became the prohibitionists’ main mode of attack. Prohibitionists, contrary to all expectations, not only appealed to the concept of human rights but managed to successfully state in the final stages of the debate that the major human rights violation under current drug regulations was the neglect of young working-class people’s health.

As already pointed out, despite huge efforts, Argentina’s drug law could not be changed. Nonetheless, the anti-prohibitionists secured significant achievements: drug policies were, for the first time, discussed in the national legislative arena in terms of human rights, setting the boundaries within which future debates on the subject can take place. This is due to the fact that ‘human rights’, once invoked as a concept, compels enunciators to conform to its standards. Needless to say, this does not mean that mentioning the concept in documents and public policies guarantees the respect of these standards. Therefore, in neoliberal contexts such as the one we are currently living in, it is important to pay attention to the meanings invoked by the term ‘human rights’ since these may play into the introduction of public policies that are contrary to the very rights protected by international human rights treaties.


[1] The Argentine Congress consists of two chambers, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Parliamentary procedure indicates that bills can be introduced in any of the two chambers. Once bills are approved in the “chamber of origin”, they are debated in the “revising chamber”. Usually, bills are first debated in committees (specifically, in lawmaker and parliamentary advisors’ committee meetings) and then, after committees have submitted their reports, these can – following agreement in pre-floor party meetings conducted by legislative blocs and in the Chamber Directorate – be scheduled for consideration on the plenary floor.

[2] By this is meant, doing everything possible to promote discussion: persuade fellow political partisans, gather support from other political blocs, request consideration in committee meetings, make press releases, etc.

[3] Gellner, E. 1995. “War and Violence”. In: Anthropology and Politics: Revolutions in the Sacred Grove. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford. See also, Corbelle, F. 2018. El activismo político de los usuarios de drogas: De la clandestinidad al Congreso Nacional. Teseo Press: Buenos Aires.

Florencia Corbelle is an Argentinian anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher with a scholarship from the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET). Dr Corbelle’s research explores drug control policies focusing on law enforcement practices, legislative reforms, and political activism.