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Argentina’s Law 23737 of 1989 punishes drug possession with imprisonment of one to six years and a fine.[1]  Article 14 of the Law also punishes the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use.  However, the penalty in such cases is imprisonment for one month to two years, which can be replaced by detoxification and rehabilitation treatment.[2]

In the 2009 Arriola decision[3] the Supreme Court declared the penalty provision (second paragraph) of article 14 unconstitutional as a violation of article 19 of the National Constitution (NC), which provides as follows:

The private actions of individuals, which in no way offend public order or morality, nor injure a third party, are only reserved to God and are exempted from the authority of judges.  No inhabitant of the Nation shall be obliged to perform what the law does not demand nor deprived of what it does not prohibit.[4]

The Arriola case involved five individuals who were arrested when leaving their house with small quantities of marijuana.  The Supreme Court concluded that criminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use when it does not pose any danger or harm to others is a violation of NC article 19.[5]  It also ruled that personal use protected under the NC must not affect others, and that possession for personal use must be determined by the small quantity of the drug in question. 

The ruling does not specifically state what amounts are considered “small amounts” for personal-use purposes.  The broad language used in the ruling, coupled with the fact that decisions rendered by the Supreme Court are only applicable to each individual case and do not bind other lower courts, has led other courts to continue prosecuting drug users.[6]  Therefore, each judge has the authority to determine the quantity and circumstances that qualify as “personal use.”[7] 

In the Arriola case, the Supreme Court did not decriminalize the use of marijuana in general.  It only ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose criminal penalties on an adult who consumes a small amount of marijuana in a private setting with no harm to others.[8]

On April 2016, the government reportedly announced that it will send a bill to Congress that would amend Law 23737 to set clear limits and amounts on drugs for purposes of establishing personal use in order to avoid the confusion created by the Arriola decision.[9]

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Prepared by Graciela Rodriguez-Ferrand
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
July 2016


[1] Ley No. 23737, art. 14, para. 1, Sept. 1, 1989, Boletin Oficial [B.O.], Oct. 10, 1989, http://servicios.infoleg. gob.ar/infolegInternet/anexos/0-4999/138/texact.htm, archived at https://perma.cc/G78S-55ZU.

[2] Id. art. 14, para. 2 & art. 17.

[3] Corte Suprema de Justicia de la Nación [CSJN] [National Supreme Court of Justice], 25/8/2009, “Arriola, Sebastián y otros / Recurso de Hecho” (Arriola Case) (A. 891. XLIV), http://sjconsulta.csjn.gov.ar/sjconsulta/ documentos/verUnicoDocumento.html?idAnalisis=671140, archived at https://perma.cc/Z25T-PKHS.

[4] Constitución Nacional art. 19, B.O., Dec. 15 1994, http://servicios.infoleg.gob.ar/infolegInternet/anexos/0-4999/804/norma.htm, archived at https://perma.cc/5GSA-2DT9 (translation by author).

[5] Arriola Case at 86, para. 14..

[6] Santiago Safar, El Fallo Arriola: Punto de Partida para la Edificación de una Jurisprudencia Razonable en Torno a la Tenencia de Estupefacientes para Consumo Personal 20 (unpublished seminar paper, Universidad Nacional de La Plata, n.d.), available at http://www.jursoc.unlp.edu.ar/documentos/publicaciones/Fallo_Arriola_cambio_jurispr_ en_relac_tenencia_persona_Sant_SAFAR.pdf (last visited June 30, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/S6ME-XZT8.

[7] Id.

[8] La Corte no Ordenó la Despenalización General del Consumo de Marihuana, Centro de Información Judicial (Aug. 25, 2009), http://www.cij.gov.ar/nota-2156-La-Corte-no-ordeno-la-despenalizacion-general-del-consumo-de-marihuana.html, archived at https://perma.cc/J223-3FPU.

[9] Daniel Gallo, El Gobierno Definirá la Cantidad de Drogas de Tenencia para Consumo, La Nación (Apr. 25, 2016), http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1892519-el-gobierno-definira-la-cantidad-de-drogas-de-tenencia-para-consumo, archived at https://perma.cc/7J9R-E257.