9 things we’ve learned from a 50-year war on drugs

Across the Americas, the model of prohibition has fuelled inequality, bloodshed, and the mass violation of human rights. We need to understand why it has failed. Español

openDemocracy Opendemocracy
14 March 2016

Pichari (VRAEM region), Cusco, Peru. Credit: Alberto Cifuentes. All rights reserved.

Pichari (VRAEM region), Cusco, Peru. Credit: Alberto Cifuentes. All rights reserved.Why has the ‘war on drugs’ in the Americas actually increased the militarisation and bloodshed associated with drug trafficking? By creating an enormous illegal market controlled by complex and increasingly powerful criminal groups, violent conflicts have intensified across the region. At the same time, repressive policies have violated the human rights of tens of thousands of people. Here are nine lessons we’ve learned from 50 years of drug wars, drawn from a joint report by 17 organisations from 11 countries in the Americas.

1. Militarised state action actually increases the violence

Anti-drug war protest, Mexico. Getty Images / Kevork Dejansezian. All rights reserved.

Anti-drug war protest, Mexico. Getty Images / Kevork Dejansezian. All rights reserved.Consider Mexico. Here, the war against drug trafficking has led to more than 70,000 murders as well as major infringements on millions of people’s liberty and security. In 2006, president Felipe Calderon ordered a major military offensive against the drug cartels, enabling tens of thousands of army officials to carry out detentions, patrols, and inspections. Meanwhile, numerous state and municipal public security institutions began to appoint active or retired military personnel to head them. What happens when the military assumes de facto responsibility for a country’s public security tasks? Complaints against the Armed Forces at the National Human Rights Commission have risen significantly: with more than 5000 complaints of torture and ill-treatment, more than 22,000 victims of enforced disappearance and more than 280,000 people displaced by violence.

2. Penalising the drug users hasn't worked either...

Street art in Ushuaia, Argentina, Flickr/Sjoerd van Oosten. Some rights reserved.

Street art in Ushuaia, Argentina, Flickr/Sjoerd van Oosten. Some rights reserved.The international drug control system is essentially leading a moral crusade against consumption and for total prohibition. The 1988 international Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances has been highly influential. It called on states to focus efforts on the lower links of the commercialisation chain: which included drug users. The result of this is that, in Argentina, for example, a law is still in effect that criminalises the possession of narcotics for personal consumption, despite a 2009 ruling by the nation’s Supreme Court which declared it unconstitutional. These drug users are generally apprehended in public spaces with small amounts of drugs in their possession, are unarmed, and are not in violation of any other law.

3. Meanwhile, mass detention has become the racist norm

CELS. All rights reserved.

CELS. All rights reserved.Let’s look at the US. Between 1990 and 2010, the length of prison sentences grew, drug arrests rose 53% and the number of people arrested for marijuana-related crimes surged 188%. And between 2001 and 2010, there were more than 8 million arrests for marijuana, of which 88% were for possession. These arrest rates for marijuana possession reveal marked racial prejudice: for people of African descent, the rate is 716 for every 100,000 inhabitants, whereas among white people the figure is 192 for every 100,000. Meanwhile, the rates of use and non-use of marijuana are very similar in the white and black populations.

4. ...as well as lighter sentences for rape and murder

CELS. All rights reserved.

CELS. All rights reserved.In some Latin American countries, the punishment is the same or greater for people who decide to sell prohibited substances to adults who are voluntarily consuming them than it is for people who commit sexual crimes, or even murder. In Bolivia, the maximum sentence for narcotics trafficking (25 years in prison) is higher than what is stated for homicide (20 years) and rape (15 years). The situation is similar in Mexico, where the maximum penalty for trafficking is 25 years in prison and 24 years for homicide.

5. This increase in mass incarceration is aggravating a serious prison crisis

CELS. All rights reserved.

CELS. All rights reserved.This isn’t so surprising. The enforcement of harsh laws has led to the overburdening of courts and prisons, and to the deprivation of liberty of tens of thousands of people for minor crimes related to drugs, including simple possession. And the weight of these laws has fallen principally on the most vulnerable social sectors. Even in countries where carrying small amounts of drugs for personal use is not considered a crime, the prisons have been filling up with users. One reason may be due to the fact that, in most of these countries, the laws do not distinguish clearly between users and drug traffickers, and they give police and judicial officials room to freely interpret each situation.

6. Many thought destroying drug crops was the kind of ‘tough’ policy we needed. In practice, it’s been disastrous.

Narcotics police eradicate coca crops, Colombia. William Fernando Martinez/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Narcotics police eradicate coca crops, Colombia. William Fernando Martinez/Flickr. Some rights reserved.‘Forced eradication’ is another of the policies developed to control drugs internationally – it aims to eliminate drugs at the point of production. The strategy sounds appealing, because it seems so tough and straightforward. In reality, it has proven to be ineffective. There is broad evidence showing that eradication causes great harm to producers and their communities, increasing poverty for some of the neediest sectors, fostering human rights violations, fueling political instability and social conflict, and often benefiting armed groups. Forced eradication implies the destruction of the main source of income of poor small producers. By further worsening their living conditions, this policy reinforces – and may even strengthen – small growers’ dependence on illegal crops.

7. Many 'treatments' for drug addiction are humiliating and inhumane

March for the legalization of marijuana for medical use in Brazil. Upslon/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

March for the legalization of marijuana for medical use in Brazil. Upslon/Flickr. Some rights reserved.What passes for ‘treatment’ of drug addiction in many countries often includes the excessive prescription of mood-altering drugs or the complete absence of medicines that help relieve the effects of withdrawal. In addition, under the guise of treatment, users may be subject to verbal abuse, military-style exercises or even beatings. Forced labour or work that is paid next-to-nothing is often framed as ‘rehabilitation’. And the conditions in which patients bathe, eat or sleep in many facilities do not meet the minimum standards for humane treatment.

8. International human rights law has been forgotten

Flickr / Davecito. Some rights reserved.

Flickr / Davecito. Some rights reserved.Again, this is unsurprising, but it’s worth repeating. Many of the rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) – which carries most weight in this region – have been violated by the implementation of policies that are ‘tough on drugs’. For instance, the right of movement and residence (Article 22, ACHR) has been systematically denied by the forced displacement of the civilian population due to narcotics control strategies. In Colombia, entire populations have been displaced by forced eradication and aerial spraying campaigns against illegal crops led by the armed forces.

9. We need to fight the 'prohibition addicts'

‘Twingo’ anti-drug operation in Colombia. Getty Images/Piero Pomponi. All rights reserved.

‘Twingo’ anti-drug operation in Colombia. Getty Images/Piero Pomponi. All rights reserved.What does this all mean? The prohibitionist model and the promise of a ‘drug-free society’ promoted by the ‘war on drugs’ is in crisis: its credibility and legitimacy are seriously eroded. The prohibitionist approach implacably punishes and pursues some participants in the illegal drug market while tolerating others. Over the course of five decades of ‘war’, this latter group has done nothing but get rich off the drug business and the laundering of assets. More and more officials at a national and international level around the world have become ‘prohibition addicts’.

But alternatives exist. First, states should be exploring non-punitive responses (including the regulation of markets). Secondly, drug consumption for personal use should be decriminalised, and penalties and prison sentences that are proportional with other crimes should be established. Third, the abusive use of criminal law should be prevented. These are just small examples of the many concrete measures we should be talking about, in order to ensure that the suffering experienced in our region is not repeated elsewhere in the world. Join our debate: #DrugPolicy #AlternativesExist

You can read the full report by 17 organisations from 11 countries in the Americas, “The impact of drug policy on human rights: the experience in the Americas”, published by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), here.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

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