The extent to which the ongoing drug-control reforms across the Americas are pushing the boundaries of the global legal framework laid down in three UN drug-control conventions has become a delicate issue. The decriminalization of possession for personal use in several Latin American countries and the establishment of a supervised injection room in Vancouver, Canada have already triggered protracted legal disputes with the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), the quasi-judicial organ for the conventions’ implementation.
Latin American drug policies have made no dent in the drug trade; instead they have taken a tremendous toll on human lives. In 2009, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) embarked on an ambitious project to document the real impact of Latin America’s “war on drugs” and to show its human cost through the video testimonies of the victims themselves.
Around the world, millions of people depend on the cultivation of coca, opium poppy and cannabis for basic subsistence. The 1961 Convention introduced strict controls on the cultivation of these plants and banned centuries-old traditional medicinal, cultural and ceremonial uses. The 1988 Convention reinforced those provisions, obliging states to eradicate illicit cultivation and to impose criminal sanctions.
Two U.S. states have legalized recreational marijuana, and more may follow; the Obama administration has conditionally accepted these experiments. Such actions are in obvious tension with three international treaties that together commit the United States to punish and even criminalize activity related to recreational marijuana. The administration asserts that its policy complies with the treaties because they leave room for flexibility and prosecutorial discretion.
Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield called for "flexible" interpretations of international drug control treaties at the United Nations in New York City, citing marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington.
In a press conference at the United Nations in New York on October 9, US official William Brownfield laid the groundwork for a new US approach to international drug policy, pointing to the changing political landscape on drug regulation in the Americas.
Ecuador was never a significant center of production or traffic of illicit drugs; nor has it ever experienced the social convulsions that can result from the existence of a dynamic domestic drug market. While Ecuador has become an important transit country for illicit drugs and precursor chemicals and for money laundering, the illicit drug trade has not been perceived as a major threat to the country’s national security. However, for nearly two decades, Ecuador has had one of the most draconian drug laws in Latin America.
Ecuador has one of the most severe and unfair drug laws of all the countries included in Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America, a comparative research study published today by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). From when it came into force in 1991, drug Law 108 has created an ongoing situation of disproportionate sentences that violate both human and civil rights. Although the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights is in the process of developing a proposal to reform the drug law – after recognising the injustices it causes – the reform process advances at a slow pace and it is not yet known whether the process will continue. Therefore Law 108 is still in force.
Allow countries and regions more space for policy reform using and stretching the margins of the conventions. Strengthen alliances of like-minded nations to support one another and effectively coordinate efforts at the UN level through informal consultations and strategy meetings. Any crack in the global prohibition regime would not plunge the world into chaos immediately. We should not press for a new global straitjacket but for a model that respects cultural differences. We have to open up the debate about the wisdom of the conventions as they stand.
The US drug policy is changing, pitting states against federal law. This essay explores this inner friction of contradictory drug legislation, and what it may mean for the international drug control regime, itself a result of US drug policy. (4,400 words)
Cannabis like other illicit drugs is so-called ‘controlled drug’. A closer look makes clear that these drugs are in fact far from being ‘controlled’. The cultivation, trade, transport, wholesale distribution, sale, and above all the unsafe composition, potency and quality of the products are not controlled at all. Neither is the use. All this is a threat to public health. Fortunately, there is an alternative at hand.
The backbone of the United Nations drug control system consists of three UN Drug Conventions. The prohibition of potentially harmful substances has its origin in the desire to protect human well-being. However, the way in which the global regime was set up decades ago and the escalation of repression it has brought about since, has been an historical mistake increasing rather than diminishing the problems. There is no point now in dreaming about how the world might have looked without it, or deluding ourselves that all the problems could be solved by scrapping the conventions. The challenge is to create the political space which would allow a reform process to move ahead. A process guided by pragmatism, open-mindedness and evaluation of practices on the basis of costs and benefits; providing leeway for experimentation and freedom to challenge the wisdom of the existing conventions.
How can we resolve the tensions between current drug control policies and states’ human rights obligations? The international human rights framework clearly establishes that, in the event of conflicts between obligations under the UN Charter and other international agreements, human rights obligations take precedence. As legally regulated cannabis markets start to grow, now is the time to secure a legitimate place for small farmers using alternative development, human rights and fair trade principles.
A comparative study on the impact of drug policies on the prison systems of eight Latin American countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay – reveals that drug laws have contributed to the prison crises these countries are experiencing. The drug laws impose penalties disproportionate to many of the drug offenses committed, do not give sufficient consideration to the use of alternative sanctions, and promote the excessive use of preventive detention. The study Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America, published today by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), found that the persons who are incarcerated for drug offenses tend to be individuals caught with small amounts of drugs, often users, as well as street-level dealers.
A growing number of nations are developing policies that shift away from the prohibition-oriented failed approach to drugs control. Ultimately however nations will need to reform the overall UN based global drug control framework of which practically all nations are a part.
The Bolivia chapter is based on a survey of 130 prisoners in the San Pedro men’s prison in the city of La Paz, supplemented by other official data. The study Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America, published today by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), concludes that Bolivia has one of the harshest drug laws in the region, combined with inadequate administration of the national prison system.
Argentina is a “transit” country within the international drug market. The laws designed to prosecute drug crimes have failed to reduce the scale of trafficking and have resulted instead in the imprisonment of people in vulnerable situations.
Mexico’s security crisis’ most evident toll is the unacceptable level of violence linked to drug trafficking. However, a report published today by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reveals that there are other damaging consequences, such as increased number of prisoners and the fact that the majority of the prisoners are small-scale offenders or users, and are from the most vulnerable sectors of society.
Over the past several decades, Latin America has seen penalties for drug crimes—even low-level selling—skyrocket. And in many Latin American countries, non-violent drug offenses receive significantly longer sentences than many violent crimes, such as homicide and rape. A new study of criminal legislation explores this phenomenon in seven Latin American countries (Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, and Argentina).