The Human Toll of the Drug War: A Pending Issue
Driven by poverty to make ends meet many small drug sellers' are targeted by harsh drug policies, yet their persecution does nothing to tackle the root cause of drug-related crime or addiction.
Analia Silva, an Afro-Ecuadorian woman in her late 40s, says that getting a job in Ecuador was really difficult for her because she did not know how to read or write, and she continuously faced racial and age discrimination. Jobless, desperate and being the sole provider of her two children, she started selling small amounts of drugs to make ends meet. She was caught within months and was sentenced to 8 years in prison. Her sentence was disproportionate to the crime she committed, but it could have been worse. In Ecuador, a non-violent drug offender can receive the same sentence as a murderer, sometimes even longer.
In her video testimony, Silva explains the collateral damage caused by current counter-drug policies:
“When they sentenced me, and it’s the same for every woman they sentence, they not only sentence the person who committed the crime, they also sentence their family, they also sentence their children. They [authorities] don’t realize that they want to get rid of crime, but they are the ones promoting it, because if they [the children] are left alone... what can they do? Go and steal... my daughter would become a prostitute, my son would become a drug addict, deal drugs, sell drugs.”
Analia Silva’s taped testimony is part of a video series produced by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) on the human toll of misguided drug laws. Across the region, current laws have led to overwhelmed criminal justice systems, long prison sentences disproportionate to the crimes committed and severe collateral damage to the most vulnerable sectors of society.
To avoid these unintended consequences, a number of nations in Latin America are in the process of reforming their drug laws. Countries like Argentina, Ecuador and Brazil are seeking frameworks that put more emphasis on public health and improved prison conditions—an approach that would require the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal consumption and distinction between low-level drug offenders and larger drug traffickers. Decriminalization – making drug possession for personal consumption not punishable with jail time – would ensure that drug consumers do not end up behind bars, which in turn allows health services to step in for problematic drug users.
Even though these countries’ governments have expressed their intent to undergo drug law reform, they have yet to present the law proposals. With drug policy being the hot potato that it is, it’s not clear how these reforms will fare once they are debated in the national congresses. Reform proponents and advocates, who initially showed clear optimism for the laws, warn that momentum has stalled and that the window of opportunity for change might be closing. The initiatives in both Argentina and Ecuador are facing a series of political obstacles. And as Brazil approaches elections this October, it is uncertain how the new administration and lawmakers will react to the reform efforts.
At the end of the month, two regional NGOs will hold a conference in Rio de Janeiro on drug law reform. The two-day summit will gather more than 30 drug policy experts from 13 different countries to discuss geopolitics, trafficking, decriminalization and alternative treatments. The organizers, Argentina’s Intercambios and Brazil’s Psicotrópicus, are hoping that the August 26th and 27th conference will open up space for these reforms to move forward. At the conference, TNI's Pien Metaal will present findings from the TNI-WOLA research team on drug laws and incarceration in Latin America. The final report will be released later this year.
Hopefully, Latin America will break the reforms’ impasse soon. The longer countries wait to reform these unjust laws, the more people like Analia will end up in jail only to serve a sentence that might cause more harm to society than the actual crime committed.
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