The Center for Legal Social Studies (CELS) recently released a publication, entitled The Impact of Drug Policy on Human Rights, which has shed light upon some of the deep erosions of civil liberties and human rights that have been justified by the War on Drugs. The report – which primarily focuses upon the consequences of the drug war in Latin America – criticises how prohibition’s human rights implications have only recently become matters of discussion, despite the cyclical violence of prohibition having ravaged the region for decade.
Rather than the traditional prohibitionist rhetoric, which places blame for the drug trade upon users and traffickers, CELS’ report describes the widespread criminality around drugs as a fault of policymakers. “The prohibitionist approach”, it asserts, “fostered the creation of highly profitable illegal markets dominated by armed groups”.
Importantly, the scope of trafficking groups’ violence and human rights abuses goes far beyond the realm of drugs; the existence of this multi-billion dollar illegal market has inevitably infiltrated both illegal and legitimate sectors. The report demonstrates how the drug trade has become “inseparable from arms trafficking, territorial disputes, corruption and the weakening of […] the police, the judicial system and government offices”. The proliferation of violence associated with the War on Drugs is most evident in Mexico, where more than 70,000 men, women, and children since its government intensified its drug war in 2006.
The perpetrators of the violence are not solely the drug traffickers, but the state’s armed forces too; the country’s human rights commission has received “more than 5,000 complaints of torture and ill-treatment, more than 22,000 victims of enforced disappearance and more than 280,000 people displaced by violence”. This militarisation of prohibition is by no means confined to Mexico; similar stories – although smaller in magnitude – have emerged from Peru, Brazil, Guatemala, and other Latin American nations.
Aside from the disastrous impact of the criminalised trade, the report also explores the erosion of civil liberties and hazards to health caused by the criminalisation of drug use. This approach, the report claims, “pushes aside the health and human rights considerations that should take precedence”, and leads to gross violations of civil liberties – somewhat fuelled by the corruption within law enforcement. CELS’ publication provides harrowing accounts of individuals’ arrested for drug possession, including the discriminatory and disproportionate punishments that they often face.
“Miguel Ángel Durrels, a 29-year-old horse groom, was detained on September 8, 2013, for possessing 78 grams of marijuana and was taken to a police station in Pilar, Buenos Aires province. Miguel Ángel was detained in a holding cell that was not authorized for this purpose. About 12 hours later, he was found dead: hung by an electrical cable and propped upright against the iron bars. His body showed evidence of having been struck in the face and the chest. […] His relatives reported that they were not allowed to see his body before the autopsy was performed.”
Even when the judicial process is followed, the criminal sentencing for drug offenses appear to be inordinately large, particularly when contrasted with those for violent crimes.
Despite these repressive policies towards drugs, results suggest that it is rarely the powerful cartel leaders who are prosecuted. Instead, low-level street dealers or users appear as low-hanging fruit for law enforcement – resulting in the cycle of drug trafficking and interdiction being perpetuated. For example, the report asserts that in Colombia, 98% of people detained for drugs have not been proven to have “significant participation in drug trafficking networks”.
Numerous alternatives to prohibition have been extensively researched, and some have even been implemented in other parts of the world. It is unsurprising that the prohibitionist method fails to gain successful results, the report argues, as it “legitimizes a warlike response that […] deliberately minimizes aspects related to public health, the production matrix of communities, cities and states, and the individual freedoms involved”. The key message of the report, particularly for current or future world leaders who may read it, is that prohibition is not the only way – “alternatives exist”.
Organisations around the world – including Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations, and the Drug Policy Alliance – have advocated the reform of national and international legislation to reduce the harmful consequences that the War on Drugs poses to human rights. This report exposes the extent of some of these harms in Latin America, and as further research is undertaken, it will become harder for governments to justified the continued implementation of prohibition. For international progress to occur within this policy domain, it is essential for the dangers of the drug war to be publicised in the run-up to April 2016, when the United Nations General Assembly is convening for a special session to debate the prohibitionist approach.
The full report may be downloaded here: The Impact of Drug Policy on Human Rights.