Nearly every country in the world plays a part—as producer,
consumer, or transit point—in the multibillion-dollar illicit drug trade that
supplies more than 150 million people every year and keeps on growing.
To combat this
trade, many countries over recent decades have launched so-called “wars on
drugs” that entail crackdowns on participants large and small in the drug
business, including harsh penalties for users.
Human Rights Watch has long
documented the widespread human rights abuses resulting from this approach: in
the United States, the devastation that disproportionate prison sentences for drug offenses have wrought on
individuals and their families and disturbing racial disparities in drug law enforcement; in Mexico, the killings committed in the name of combatting drugs; in Canada, the US, and Russia, how fear of criminal law enforcement deters
people who use drugs from accessing necessary health services, exposing them to
violence, discrimination, and illness; in Afghanistan and Colombia, how narcotics
production has fueled armed groups opposed or allied to the government; in India, Ukraine, and Senegal, how
cancer patients suffer severe pain due to drug control regulations that render morphine
inaccessible; and in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, the “drug rehabilitation centers” where people
are subjected to torture, forced labor, and sexual abuse.
But there was a growing sense within Human Rights Watch that
this approach did not go far enough—that the problem did not lie merely with
ill-considered policies or their abusive execution. Rather, the criminalization
of drugs itself seemed to be inherently problematic. Especially when it came to
personal possession and use, imposing the full force of the criminal justice
system to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate appeared contrary to the human
rights to privacy and personal autonomy that underlie many rights.
Heavy emphasis on enforcing criminal prohibitions on drug
production and distribution was also
dramatically enhancing the profitability of illicit drug markets and fueling
the growth and operations of groups that commit atrocities, corrupt
authorities, and undermine democracy and the rule of law in many countries.
In my own work as Human Rights Watch’s Colombia researcher
from 2004 to 2010, it was clear that the illicit drug market was a major factor
in the country’s long-running war involving left-wing guerrilla groups,
right-wing paramilitary groups, and security forces.
Certainly, Colombia’s staggering levels of abuse—massacres,
killings, rape, threats, and kidnappings that displaced more than 3 million
people—had roots that went beyond the drug trade and predated the explosion in
the cocaine market in the 1970s. But most armed groups in Colombia in some way
benefitted from the illicit trade. The paramilitaries, in particular, were
among Colombia’s biggest drug lords. Often, they threatened or killed people living
on land they wanted to control for coca production or as drug transportation
corridors. Illicit drug profits helped pay for their weapons and uniforms,
wages for their “soldiers,” and bribes for public officials to evade justice
for their crimes.
it became increasingly difficult—as we documented the atrocities, called for
justice, and pressed the US to enforce human rights conditions on its assistance (the US provided
Colombia more than US$5 billion in mostly military aid in 2000-2010)—to ignore
that many of the abuses we advocated to end would inevitably continue in some
form unless US and global drug policy itself changed.
My later work on US policy towards such countries as
Afghanistan and Mexico, and on the US criminal justice system, only
strengthened my view—which others at Human Rights Watch shared—that drug
criminalization was inherently inconsistent with human rights.
After much discussion, the organization in 2013 adopted a policy
calling on governments to decriminalize all personal use and possession of
drugs. We also urged them to
consider—and eventually adopt—alternative policies on the drug trade to reduce
the enormous human rights costs of current approaches.
urgent, as our research consistently shows.
Medellín: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Alex Pulgarín knew a lot about the power that the illicit
drug trade gave to criminals—and the damage it could inflict.
When I interviewed him in 2007, he was a fresh-faced
30-year-old with an easy smile who looked younger than his age but spoke with
the confidence of a seasoned player in the complicated politics of his city,
Medellín, a major hub for Colombia’s cocaine trade.
As a child in the 1980s, Alex witnessed the bloody “war” the
infamous Medellín cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar waged against Colombia’s
government in a bid to secure a ban on extraditions to the US. The car
bombings, airplane hijackings, and frequent assassinations that Escobar ordered
garnered Medellín the label, “murder capital of the world.”
So many rejoiced when Colombian security forces, with US
backing, killed Escobar in 1993. But the bloodletting didn’t end there. As the
world turned its attention elsewhere, others discreetly filled his shoes.
One of them was Diego Murillo, also known as “Berna,” a
former Escobar rival who in the 1990s went on to build his own drug trafficking
empire in Medellín, forging close ties with the paramilitaries. As a teenager
in a low-income neighborhood, Alex saw his peers get swept into a seemingly
endless cycle of brutality and death as Berna and others battled for control
over the city.
when I interviewed Alex, city officials were claiming that Medellín had turned
a corner. The government and paramilitaries had announced a “peace deal,” and
hundreds of young men had turned in weapons at “demobilization” ceremonies, signing up for government
stipends. Former paramilitary leaders received reduced prison sentences.
Homicide rates were near their lowest in years.
Among those who supposedly demobilized was Berna. Several of
his henchmen formed the Democracy Corporation, a group with the ostensible
mission of working with the city to help demobilized paramilitaries get
education and jobs and reintegrate into society.
But Alex told a different story. The corporation, he said,
was a front for organized crime, still under Berna’s control. The government’s
backing gave the corporation a veneer of legality, allowing it to exert
political influence while retaining its ruthless dominance over much of the
city. “Peace with a knife to your throat,” as Alex called it.
A Democracy Corporation leader, Antonio Lopez (“Job”), had
ordered his accomplices to kill demobilized individuals who disobeyed
him—especially “coordinators,” point people for the demobilized in each
neighborhood. Others confirmed
what Alex said: the apparent peace that Medellín was experiencing was not due
to Berna’s demobilization, but rather the result of his monopoly over crime in
the city after he defeated most competing groups. And he was retaining that
control in part through the Democracy Corporation.
While Alex knew many people in the world of local crime, he
had taken a different path. He had become an activist, joined the left-leaning Democratic
Pole party, and won a spot on his neighborhood action council. Respected and well-liked,
he dreamed of running for higher office.
But Alex was now in Job’s sights. A few
months earlier, Job had asked him to run for the Medellín City Council as the
Democracy Corporation’s candidate, trying to capitalize on Alex’s popularity.
Alex would get a car, armed guards, and a stipend if he agreed. He refused.
Instead, he began reporting what he knew to police and
prosecutors, recording his calls with coordinators who were being threatened
and sharing them with the authorities. He spoke during community meetings with
international agencies and the Catholic Church. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get
killed?” I asked when we met. He brushed off the question.
Two years later, in 2009, it looked like Alex might emerge
unscathed. Berna had been extradited to the US, where he pled guilty to cocaine
trafficking charges and received a 31-year sentence from a federal court in New
York City. Job had been gunned down, reportedly by rivals, in an upscale
restaurant near Medellín. And Alex testified in a trial against another
Democracy Corporation member, John
William López, or Memín. Several witnesses were murdered
during the trial, but Memín was convicted of forcibly interfering with
elections, conspiracy, and forced displacement.
it is hard to escape the grasp of Colombia’s criminal networks.
That December, armed men—Memín
associates—accosted Alex on the street and shot
him several times in broad daylight. He died at the scene.
A Resilient and Lucrative Global Market
Profits from the illicit drug trade in Colombia have not
only fueled the country’s conflict but have also enabled criminals to buy off
or intimidate public officials. More than 100 Colombian congress members and
countless other officials have been investigated in recent years for alleged collusion with paramilitaries. In Medellín, new groups with shadowy
leadership structures have replaced Berna’s organization, much as Berna’s had
replaced Escobar’s. Violence—often via threats and displacement—is pervasive.
These problems extend well beyond Colombia. In many
countries illicit drug profits are an enormous motivator and funding source for
groups that commit atrocities, corrupt authorities, and undermine democracy and
the rule of law.
Indeed, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and
Crime (UNODC), illicit drugs constitute the largest income source for
transnational crime and may account for one-fifth of all crime proceeds. The
UNODC also estimated the value of the 2003 global illicit drugs market to be
$322 billion at retail—higher than the gross domestic product of 88 percent of
the world’s countries at the time.
Afghanistan, for example, produces around 90 percent of the
world’s opium (along with cannabis). In 2009, the late Richard Holbrooke, then-US
special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, decried how enforcing drug
policies—particularly US efforts to eradicate poppy (a crucial crop for many
impoverished Afghan farmers)—drove people “into the arms of the Taliban.” But that has only been part of the
picture. The illegal opium market has dramatically distorted the country’s
power structure, bankrolling armed groups such as the Taliban and local warlords
responsible for numerous atrocities. It also fuels
rampant corruption, making efforts to apprehend and prosecute those implicated
in these crimes extraordinarily difficult.
Meanwhile, in Mexico the
homicide rate has exploded, with at least 80,000 people killed in the country’s
“war on drugs” since 2007 (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala face similar problems).
The US has provided more than $2 billion in funding to Mexico to combat drugs during
that time. Yet the Mexican security forces deployed in the country’s “war on
drugs” have themselves often been involved in torture, extrajudicial killings, and other abuses.
The US, Russia, and other countries, with UNODC support,
have argued the answer to the exploding violence and corruption around illicit
drug markets is to vastly expand enforcement. For decades, they have poured billions of
dollars into combatting drugs (some estimate at least $100 billion a year). With varying degrees of lawfulness they
have pursued, surveilled, killed, extradited, prosecuted, and imprisoned
kingpins and low-level dealers alike. They have fumigated crops, paid farmers
to grow other crops, and interdicted shipments.
as the Global Commission on Drug Policy—a group of former presidents,
senior UN officials, and prominent public figures—stated in its June 2011 report,
expenditures have “clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.
Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are
negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers.”
as pressure increases in one place, the drug trade often shifts accordingly. My
native country, Peru, recently replaced Colombia as the world’s largest
producer of coca, according to UNODC—the same position it occupied in the
turn, “tough” enforcement has created its own nightmare for human rights
protection. Thailand’s 2003 “war on drugs” resulted in some 2,800
extrajudicial killings by state security forces in its first three months. In Canada, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, and Ukraine, police have violently mistreated
people who use drugs. In Tanzania, police and quasi-official
vigilante groups brutally beat people who inject drugs. Russia’s policies have
resulted in mass incarceration, often in environments that pose high risk of HIV
transmission, and detention of drug offenders without trial.
countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, drug
offenders face the death penalty. Iran imposes a mandatory death sentence for various drug
offenses. Other countries impose grossly disproportionate punishment in drug
cases. The US, for example, has the world’s largest reported incarcerated
population (2.2 million people in adult prisons and jails), in significant part
due to harsh sentences for drug offenses. Nearly a quarter of all prisoners—498,600
in 2011—including nearly half of federal inmates, were serving time for mostly low-level drug
offenses. Some of those convicted, and many of those arrested, have done
nothing more than use drugs, yet they will suffer the consequences of their
conviction or arrest record for the rest of their lives. For immigrants, convictions,
even for nonviolent offenses, can mean deportation and separation
from their families.
US drug law enforcement is also marred by
deep, discriminatory racial disparities.
Although whites and blacks use and sell drugs at comparable rates in the US,
blacks are arrested on
drug charges at more than three times the rate of whites and are imprisoned for
drug convictions at ten times the white rate.
The Harms of (Criminalizing) Drug Use
Proponents of criminalization of drug use often argue that
it is necessary to protect individuals’ health and keep people from harming
themselves or others.
It is legitimate for governments to address societal harms
that may result from drug abuse. But policymakers too easily attribute social
problems—domestic abuse, unemployment, or violence—to illicit drug use, when
causes are more complex.
people who use drugs does little to protect their health: prisoners often find
that drug treatment—as we found in New York—is not available. Recidivism of drug offenders is
criminalization often compounds existing harms. Fear of law enforcement can
drive people who use drugs underground,
deterring them from accessing health services and increasing the risk they face
of violence, discrimination, and serious illness, as our research in Canada,
has shown. Outside Africa, one-third of HIV infections are attributable to contaminated injection
equipment. But police enforcement of drug prohibitions is a barrier to providing
sterile syringes, and incarceration makes it harder to treat and care for those
already living with HIV.
Aggressive laws and enforcement also contribute to the
stigmatization and abusive treatment of people who use drugs. Poor public
education around drugs and their risks means that, in many countries, there is
little understanding about the real harms that may flow from drug abuse, much
less how to prevent or treat them.
The Pitfalls of Involuntary Treatment
While criminalization is
deeply problematic, extrajudicial systems of drug control can also be extremely abusive.
Thailand, for example, detains people who use drugs without trial for extended
periods in locked “treatment facilities.” In China, the 2008 Anti-Drug Law
allows officials to detain people who use drugs for up to six years with no
trial or judicial oversight.
In Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, people
who use drugs are held in government-run centers
where they are often mistreated in the name of “treatment.” In Vietnam,
detainees are used as forced labor to process cashews or manufacture clothes
for export. In Cambodia, they are subjected
to brutal punishments, including torture. In 2013, four years after we first
reported on this issue, we found that individuals held in these drug detention
centers are still being beaten, thrashed with rubber water hoses, forced to
stand in septic water pits, and sexually abused. Lack
of due process protections also renders these facilities convenient places to
detain people whom Cambodian authorities consider “undesirable”—including
homeless people and street children—in sporadic crackdowns often occurring
before visits of foreign dignitaries.
A Human Rights Approach to Drug Control
To ensure their drug policies are in line with international
human rights standards, governments should:
Decriminalize personal use and possession of drugs for personal use.
Laws criminalizing drug use are
inconsistent with respect for human autonomy and privacy rights. Governments
may limit these rights if necessary for a legitimate purpose, such as
preventing harm to others. But like other private behavior that some may view
as immoral (such as consensual homosexual conduct among adults), there is no
legitimate basis for criminalization. Nor is criminalization necessary to
protect people who use drugs: Governments have many non-penal measures to
encourage people to make good choices around drugs, including offering
substance abuse treatment and social support. Governments can also criminalize negligent or dangerous behavior (such
as driving under the influence) to regulate harmful conduct by individuals who
use drugs, without criminalizing drug use itself.
Reduce criminal regulation of drug production and
Criminalization of the drug trade
carries enormous human rights costs, dramatically enhancing the profitability
of illicit drug markets and fueling the growth and operations of groups responsible
for large-scale violence and corruption. Finding alternative ways to regulate production
and distribution and cutting into illicit drug profits would allow governments
to weaken the influence of such groups and reduce the various abuses—killings,
disproportionate sentencing, torture, and barriers to access to health care—that
governments often commit in the name of fighting drugs.
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Governments should close drug
detention centers where people are held in violation of international law and
expand access to voluntary, community-based drug treatment with the involvement
of competent nongovernmental organizations. They should also ensure that anyone with a legitimate
medical need for controlled medications like morphine or methadone has adequate
access to them.
alternatives to current policies have yet to be tested (except with respect to
alcohol). So governments should assess proposed solutions carefully to reduce
the risk they could lead to new problems or human rights concerns.
Yet, there are some
models to consider: Some governments have decriminalized personal use and
possession of illicit drugs or resisted enforcing certain prohibitions. In Portugal, in conjunction with comprehensive
harm-reduction strategies, decriminalization had positive results; rather than
substantially increasing, drug consumption reportedly dropped in some
categories—as did recidivism and HIV infection.
Researchers have also developed theoretical models for potential systems of
drug regulation with varying ways of handling licensing, privatization versus
state monopoly control of supply, taxation, public health education, the
protection of children, and treatment. And some jurisdictions are beginning to
put these models into practice.
A Changing Landscape
The pendulum is starting to swing on drug policy, with
Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia calling for a review of the global drug control
regime. “As long as the flow
of resources from drugs and weapons to criminal organizations [is] not stopped,”
they said in a 2012 joint statement
decrying the failure of current prohibitionist strategies, “they will continue
to threaten our societies and governments.”
In a study in 2013 on the
effectiveness of current policies, the Organization of American States opened
up a discussion about their costs and outlined, without endorsing, various
possible scenarios for future
Uruguay approved a law legalizing marijuana and establishing a regulated system
of production and distribution for the drug, though a compulsory treatment bill
was also pending at time of writing.
Change is slowly happening in the US, too. Attorney General
Eric Holder in 2013 issued guidance for federal
prosecutors that would allow US states to legalize
marijuana, noting that a regulated market may further federal priorities of
combatting organized crime. Washington State and Colorado are legalizing the
possession, production, and distribution of marijuana for recreational use; 20
other states have legalized medical marijuana.
UN agencies and special rapporteurs have called for drug detention centers to
close immediately. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) called for all
children to be removed from Cambodia’s centers; still, one in 10 people
held in Cambodia’s centers today is a child.
Indeed, progress has been limited and fragile.
Criminalization remains the tool of choice for drug control in most countries,
where there is often little debate around harsh and counterproductive policies.
Meanwhile, the devastating costs of the current approach—in lives lost to
violence, people subjected to long prison terms, barriers to health, harm to
families and communities, and damage to the rule of law—keep mounting. It is
time to chart a new course.
Sánchez-Moreno is deputy director of the US Division.