Reform Policies to Curb Violence, Abuse
June 4, 2013
The ‘drug war’ has taken a huge toll in the Americas, from the carnage of brutal drug-trafficking organizations to the egregious abuses by security forces fighting them. Governments should find new policies to address the harm drug use causes while curbing the violence and abuse that have plagued the current approach.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director

(Antigua) – National drug control policies that impose criminal penalties for personal drug use undermine basic human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. To deter harmful drug use, governments should rely instead on non-penal regulatory and public health policies. The 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States, taking place in Antigua, Guatemala from June 4 to 6, 2013, will focus on drug control policy in the Americas.

Governments should also take steps to reduce the human rights costs of current drug production and distribution policies, Human Rights Watch said. Among the steps should be reforming law enforcement practices and exploring alternatives for legal regulation that would reduce the power of violent criminal groups.

“The ‘drug war’ has taken a huge toll in the Americas, from the carnage of brutal drug-trafficking organizations to the egregious abuses by security forces fighting them,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should find new policies to address the harm drug use causes while curbing the violence and abuse that have plagued the current approach.”

Personal Use of Drugs
Subjecting people to criminal sanctions for the personal use of drugs, or for possession of drugs for personal use, infringes on their autonomy and right to privacy, Human Rights Watch said. The right to privacy is broadly recognized under international law, including in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. Limitations on autonomy and privacy cannot be justified unless they meet the criteria for any restriction of a basic right, namely legitimate purpose, proportionality, necessity, and non-discrimination.

While protecting health is a legitimate government purpose, criminalizing drug use to protect people from harming themselves does not meet the criteria of necessity or proportionality. Governments have many non-penal options to reduce harm to people who use drugs, including offering substance abuse treatment and social support.  

Human Rights Watch research around the world has found that the criminalization of drug use has undermined the right to health. Fear of criminal penalties deters people who use drugs from using health services and treatment, and increases their risk of violence, discrimination, and serious illness. Criminal prohibitions have also impeded the use of drugs for legitimate medical research, and have prevented patients from accessing drugs for palliative care and pain treatment.

“There are many steps that governments can and should take to deter, prevent and remedy the harmful use of drugs,” Vivanco said. “But they shouldn’t do it by punishing the people whose health they are trying to protect.”

Governments have a legitimate interest in protecting third parties from harm resulting from drug use, such as driving under the influence, Human Rights Watch said. They may impose, consistent with human rights, proportionate criminal penalties on behavior that occurs in conjunction with drug use if that behavior causes or seriously risks harm to others.

With respect to drug use by children, governments have obligations to take appropriate legislative, administrative, social, and educational measures to protect children from the illicit use of drugs. Governments should not impose criminal penalties on children for drug use or possession, Human Rights Watch said.

“When someone under the influence of drugs does something that could harm others, whether it’s driving a car or endangering a child through neglect, criminal sanctions may be entirely appropriate, just as they are when people use alcohol in a way that endangers others,” said Vivanco. “However, the penalty is not for drug use alone but for engaging in activity that could endanger others while under the influence of drugs.”

Drug Production and Distribution
The enforcement of criminal laws on drug production and distribution in the Americas and elsewhere in the world has resulted, directly or indirectly, in serious and sometimes widespread and systematic human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said.  

The criminalization of drug production and distribution has increased the profitability of illicit drug markets. That has in turn fueled the growth and operations of groups – including paramilitaries and guerrillas in Colombia and organized crime in Mexico – that commit atrocities, undermine public security, and weaken the rule of law.

In Mexico, more than 70,000 people were killed in drug-related violence during the six-year term of former president Felipe Calderón, who deployed the military to fight a “war on drugs.” Abuses by state security forces increased dramatically during this time. For example, Human Rights Watch documented more than 150 cases in which evidence indicates that soldiers and police participated in enforced disappearances.

In Colombia, Human Rights Watch documented how, for decades armed groups were heavily financed by drug trafficking, and, in some cases motivated by profits from the drug trade, committed widespread abuses, including massacres, torture, sexual violence, and forced displacement. Paramilitaries and other drug-trafficking groups have also undermined the rule of law through widespread corruption and intimidation of government officials. 

In Brazil, Human Rights Watch has documented how members of police forces in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have responded to violence by well-armed, drug-trafficking gangs by resorting to so-called resistance killings, in which police commit extrajudicial executions and then falsely report them as acts of self-defense.

In the United States, Human Rights Watch has documented unwarranted and often dramatic racial disparities in drug law enforcement, which violate fundamental human rights principles of justice and equal protection of the law. Grossly disproportionate sentences imposed under US federal and state laws for drug offenses have had a harmful impact.  

International Drug Conventions
International drug conventions should be interpreted and, where necessary, revised to ensure that they do not prohibit or discourage governments from adopting policies that would enable them to reduce the human rights costs of current policies, Human Rights Watch said.

More than 95 percent of United Nations member countries are parties to the three core drug treaties, which oblige governments to make the possession, purchase or cultivation of drugs for personal consumption a criminal offense.

Although the treaties offer some latitude for interpretation, the International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors compliance, has reprimanded countries that have taken steps toward decriminalization. 

Human Rights Watch recognizes that reform of existing strategies for drug control may raise legitimate concerns about unintended social or health costs, such as a significant increase in drug abuse. Governments should carry out their reforms based upon evidence of effective ways to reduce the harm to others that can accompany drug use and drug control.

“Given the violence and abuse associated with existing drug policies, it is critically important for governments not to be constrained from exploring new approaches,” Vivanco said.

More reporting on: