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Drugs And Human Rights

Efforts to curtail the trafficking, sale and consumption of illegal drugs continued to rely on excessive punishment, exacerbate prison overcrowding, distort criminal justice systems, and weaken protection of civil liberties. In countries with vastly different political, social and economic systems and traditions, anti-narcotic strategies included tactics inconsistent with human rights principles.

Drug offenders continued to face the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, China sentenced 662 people to death in 1997 for drug offenses and executed at least 437. The quantities of drugs triggering the death penalty can be small: in June, a Malaysian court sentenced a man to death for trafficking in a pound and a half of marijuana. In Vietnam, possession with intent to sell a mere 3.6 ounces of heroin is punishable by death. More than thirty drug traffickers were sentenced to death in Vietnam during 1998. In Singapore, two men were executed in September for offenses involving cannabis and morphine. Singapore imposes the death penalty on adults trafficking in as little as one-half ounce of heroin, one ounce of morphine or eighteen ounces of marijuana. Since 1975, it has executed more than 300 people, mostly for drug-related offenses. In July, two drug offenders were hanged in Kuwait, the first to be executed under a new law extending the death penalty to traffickers, repeat drug offenders and offences involving minors. In Singapore, a new law made death mandatory for trafficking in 250 grams (8.8 ounces) of methamphetamine. In Iran, a new law imposed the death sentence on individuals possessing as little as 1.05 ounces of heroin and criminalized addiction.

Egregious punishments short of the death penalty were also meted out to drug offenders. In Thailand, couriers transporting small quantities of drugs faced life or fifty-year sentences (often following commutation of a death sentence). In the state of New York in the U.S., a single sale of two ounces of cocaine was punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Working with an array of public interest groups and activists, Human Rights Watch continued to press the New York governor and legislature to reform the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing drug laws to bring them into conformity with international requirements of fairness and proportionality. Partisan politics prevailed, however, and the 1998 legislative session ended without any drug law reform. During 1997, 11,614 people were sentenced to prison under the state’s draconian drug laws, most of them low-level offenders. Almost 80 percent of them had no prior convictions for violent felonies, and over 50 percent had no prior drug convictions.

Prison conditions deteriorated markedly as hundreds of thousands of drug offenders pushed prison populations far beyond capacity. In Ecuador, nearly 50 percent of those incarcerated were being held for drug offenses. The proportion of drug offenders in Malaysia’s prison population was 40 percent, 47 percent in Singapore and more than 50 percent in Taiwan. In many countries, drug laws offenses accounted for the preponderance of incarcerated women. In Ecuador, 72 percent of incarcerated women werecharged with drug offenses; in Peru, 60 percent and in Venezuela, 73.4 percent. Most had been jailed for selling or carrying small quantities of drugs. In the United States, nearly 28,000 women were incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses, more than for any other category of crime.

The adverse human rights effects of current drug control strategies, including excessively aggressive criminal drug law enforcement, were most starkly displayed in the United States, the world’s capital of drug consumption. Privacy rights in the U.S. continued to be eroded: the use of undercover agents and wiretapping was routine and widespread; growing numbers of school districts required students involved in extracurricular activities to submit to random drug testing. In South Carolina, the state Supreme Court upheld a law that allows pregnant drug users to be arrested for potential harm to their fetuses. Helicopters with heat detection capabilities explored the interiors of people’s homes in Indiana. In Louisiana a new law required all residents receiving state funds to pass a urine test, including elected officials, welfare recipients, state contractors and students on financial aid; elected officials were to be selected at random for drug testing. In June, African-American drivers in Maryland filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit claiming that state troopers pulled them over and searched them because they fit drug courier profiles that included racial characteristics. Using numbers from the state troopers’ own records, the plaintiffs in the case asserted that although only 17 percent of the drivers on the major interstate highway were black, they constituted 70 percent of the drivers the police pulled over.

In New York City, aggressive drug law enforcement included searches undertaken by busting into homes with battering rams. In May, acting on a tip from a confidential informant, officers with drawn guns broke down the door of an apartment at 6:15 a.m., tossed a stun grenade inside and then handcuffed the terrified family, including a mentally retarded eighteen-year-old girl who had been taking a shower. No drugs or guns were found. In March, police without a search warrant, battered their way into a home with their guns drawn seeking drug dealers. They found a grandmother, her daughter, a six-year-old watching television, and no drugs. The police had gone to the wrong apartment. In another botched raid, a woman eight months pregnant and her fifteen-year-old sister were handcuffed while a dozen police turned their apartment upside down in a futile search for marijuana. According to press reports, the pregnant woman urinated from fear and was forced to sit in her wet underwear for two hours because the police refused her plea to be allowed to put on dry clothes.

The arrest and conviction of drug offenders continued to swell the U.S. prison population: the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increased tenfold between 1980 and 1996 and continued to grow in 1998. Twenty-three percent of all state inmates and 60 percent of all federal inmates held in prisons in 1997 were sentenced for drug offenses. Drug offenders accounted for 25 percent of the total growth in state prison populations between 1990 and 1996. Drug control policies that emphasize law enforcement and the arrest of street-level dealers in low-income urban areas contributed significantly to the growing number of black Americans in U.S. prisons.

The international community continued to ignore the conflict between respect for human rights and certain drug control tactics. In June, the member states of the United Nations gathered at a special session of the General Assembly to consider measures to strengthen drug control efforts. Human Rights Watch urged the General Assembly to acknowledge the human rights violations that occur in many countries in the context of anti-drug efforts and to affirm unequivocally that human rights must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of counternarcotic goals. Unfortunately, the special session concluded without any action addressing human rights. The 1997 annual report of the International Narcotics Control Board endorsed and encouraged efforts to suppress and punish speech deemed favorable to the use of illicit drugs. In a letter to INCB members, Human Rights Watch criticized this view as demonstrating a troubling disregard for the internationally recognized right of free speech.

In Bolivia, 1998 saw a new hard-line approach to the cultivation of drug crops by the new administration of Banzer with the support of the U.S. resistance by coca growers to crop eradication has led to greater levels of violence. Bolivian human rights groups reported fifteen deaths, dozens of injuries from bullets and a couple of hundred people detained in confrontations between coca growers and the police and army. The government placed several thousand members of the army in the coca-producing Chapare region to support the police in anti-drug activities. Increased militarization of drug control activities in the Chapare was not accompanied by any strengthening of efforts to prevent human rights abuses or to hold accountable those who engaged in them.


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