The Drug War and Human Rights

by Michael LaSusa

Adding to mounting public criticism of the “war on drugs,” a scathing new report from a coalition of human rights groups alleges that countries in the Americas have carried out the fight against the drug trade “in contradiction to their human rights obligations.”

The report, published by the Buenos Aires-based Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) in conjunction with more than a dozen organizations from 11 different countries, claims that the global “prohibitionist paradigm has increased exponentially the militarization and violence associated with drug trafficking.”

Moreover, these groups say that militarized, prohibitionist approaches have “disproportionately affect[ed] particularly vulnerable groups” and have “hindered the development of a coherent and comprehensive public health model capable of addressing the risks and harm related to narcotics use.”

At an October 21 event unveiling the report, CELS senior fellow Luciana Pol said, “In the areas of production and transit, which are located in extremely poor areas of developing countries…the living conditions of populations with very few resources already deteriorated even further where militarization, displacement and fumigation plans were implemented.”

She continued, “In many cases, the detention and incarceration of thousands and thousands of individual consumers has helped to hide the fact that we have not succeeded in chasing the big players of the game.”

“Drug policies based on a prohibitionist approach result in the creation of illegal markets that regulate themselves through violence,” added Amaya Ordorika, a researcher for the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. Ordorika said that in many countries, this has resulted in “an increase in arms trafficking, territorial disputes, and corruption and a weakening of democratic institutions.”

Narcotics Reform Spreads

The report comes amid increasing calls throughout the Americas for major reforms to international drug policy. As of 2015, several U.S. states have established legalized and regulated commercial markets for cannabis in defiance of the federal government. Canada’s newly elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has promised to do the same in his country.

Some countries in the Americas have already rejected the prohibitionist approach. With the 2006 election of former coca-grower’s union leader Evo Morales as president of Bolivia, the country embarked on an experiment known as “Coca Yes, Cocaine No,” whereby citizens can legally grow and sell coca domestically for traditional uses like chewing and making teas.

Last year, Uruguay became the first nation in the world to establish a legalized and regulated market for recreational cannabis. Uruguayan officials have argued along similar lines as the CELS report that the prohibitionist approach to drugs conflicts with the country’s obligations under international human rights treaties.

Even some of the closest U.S. allies in the “war on drugs” have openly questioned the global prohibitionist framework in recent years. In 2009, Mexico decriminalized the possession of small quantities of commonly used drugs. Colombia followed suit in 2013 by removing criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of cannabis and cocaine. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Jamaica have also recently taken steps to decriminalize small-time drug possession.

US as Biggest Pusher

The report specifically cites the United States as the nation most responsible for promoting the prohibitionist model at the international level. Over the past several decades, the United States has spent billions of dollars to support militarized counternarcotics programs abroad.

Jesselyn McCurdy of the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out the irony inherent in the United States moving toward domestic drug law reform as it continues to finance prohibitionist programs abroad. “If we acknowledge it’s a failure in this country, we can’t keep funding it in other countries,” she said.

Even by conservative estimates, the human cost of the “war on drugs” has been immense. More than 100,000 people have been killed since 2006 in Mexico alone as a result of drug-related violence. Millions more throughout the Americas have been affected by displacement and environmental damage related to the fight against drugs. The financial cost has been similarly enormous. By some accounts, the global “war on drugs” has cost more than $1 trillion since it began more than four decades ago.

Various panelists used the word “stupid” to describe the current global strategy for dealing with the issue of drugs. And they pointed out that despite recent advances, many challenges remain for proponents of drug policy reform. Coletta Youngers of the Washington Office on Latin America likened future progress to turning around a big ship. “It’s going to take time,” she said.

Still, the panelists spoke hopefully about the potential of an international dialogue to generate momentum for new strategies and solutions to long-standing challenges. In April 2016, the United Nations will hold a special session of the General Assembly on the issue of drugs.

“We cannot deny the global nature of the drug market,” said Pol. “It’s a bigger problem that involves us all.”

Photo: Mexican Marines in a counter-narcotics operation

Michael LaSusa is an independent journalist and researcher in Washington, D.C. He focuses on foreign policy, national security and human rights issues in the Americas. Twitter: @mikelasusa.

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