I spent a week over the summer lecturing in New Zealand where I had the chance to speak with a number of politicians, lawyers and health professionals who were engaging in a review of their drug and alcohol laws under the leadership of their Law Commission. This independent body has made sensible recommendations that would reduce drug and alcohol related harms by providing more just laws but is experiencing a similar stonewall response from their government as we have from ours in the UK.
(See also: Drug Law Reform: Lessons from the New Zealand Experience, Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 8, August 2010)
In an extraordinary new initiative announced earlier this month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has made some courageous and profoundly important recommendations in a report on how to bring more effective control over the illicit drug trade. They probably won’t turn to the United States for advice. Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations.
Harsh laws for selling or possessing of drugs are a public-policy disaster. Ernest Drucker, an epidemiologist, uses the tools of his trade to examine the laws and their consequences. He writes that America is suffering “a plague of prisons”, and the Rockefeller laws in New York were the outbreak of that plague. None of Mr Drucker’s statistics is new, but they bear repeating because they are unjust, unintended and easily remedied. Treating drug addiction as a public-health problem (emphasising treatment and harm-reduction) rather than a crime would go a long way towards making America’s poor and minority communities stabler and better. It would also save taxpayers money. All that is lacking is political will.
Draft legislation that foresees the decriminalization of the possession of small quantities of drugs for personal use but the leveling of criminal charges against individuals caught growing or manufacturing drugs or using them in public was submitted in Parliament in Greece. The bill is part of a broader initiative aimed at decongesting Greece’s jails, many of which are filled to beyond double their capacity. (See also: Drug law reform in Greece)
Violence at prisons in South America, where at least eight inmates were killed in recent weeks, remains tied to alarmingly shoddy conditions and rampant overcrowding, a United Nations official said Thursday. "The implementation of harsh drug laws has fueled rising incarceration rates and has contributed to severe prison overcrowding," the Washington Office on Latin America and the Transnational Institute wrote in a study two years ago.
On a recent evening, some 50 people turned up for their weekly reckoning at Judge Joel Bennett’s drug court in Austin, Texas. Those who had had a good week—gone to their Narcotics Anonymous meetings and stayed out of trouble—got a round of applause. The ones who had stumbled received small punishments: a few hours of community service, a weekend in jail, a referral to inpatient treatment. Most were sanguine about that. Completing the programme will mean a year of sobriety and the dismissal of their criminal charges.
A deadly riot in Mexico and an inferno in Honduras have turned the searchlight on conditions in Latin America's overcrowded and anarchic prisons. Of Peru's 66 desperately overcrowded jails, Lurigancho on the arid outskirts of Lima is the most overcrowded. Built for 2,500 inmates, this human clearing house crumbling walls are currently home to some 7,000 prisoners.
Whose website laments that in the United States today we have “more than one million nonviolent offenders fill[ing] the nation’s prisons,” and sings the praises of “community supervision alternatives such as probation and parole, which cost less and could have better reduced recidivism among non-violent offenders”? Guess before you click.
Prison riots in Venezuela. Jailbreaks in Mexico. Prison fires in Honduras. Latin America is displaying violent cases of the ails of its prison systems. Overcrowded and rundown, many of the region’s jails are out of control and ready to burst. In this in-depth series, GlobalPost gets inside some of the most violent jailhouses of the Americas to figure out what’s gone horribly wrong.
Brazil has been struggling with drug violence for years. The problem got so bad that the country passed a law in 2006 to distinguish between dealers and users in handing out sentences, meant to reduce the overwhelming pressure on the justice and jail systems and to better single out dealers. But since then, the number of Brazilians in prison for drug charges has more than doubled and its total prison population has grown by 37 percent.
One of the more surprising results of last week's election was the decision by voters in Colorado and Washington state to legalize marijuana for adult use. The success of both these ballot initiatives has been welcomed by many as a signal that we are about to enter a more enlightened phase in the "war on drugs", which has criminalized drug addicts and recreational drug users, as well as drug dealers. In reality, however, there is little reason to believe that any fundamental change in government policy is in the works.
The first anti-drug law in the US was a local law in San Francisco passed in 1875, outlawing the smoking of opium and directed at the Chinese. Marijuana prohibition also had racist underpinnings. This time it was the Mexicans. Just as cocaine was associated with black violence and opium with Chines white slavery, in the southwest border towns of the US marijuana was viewed -- beginning in the early 1920s -- as a cause of Mexican lawlessness.
Although illicit drug use has been declining in the UK, long-term problem drug use and drug-related deaths are not decreasing, says the British Medical Association. Its Board of Science says evidence shows the current prohibitive approach to drug use is not working. It says doctors should inform drugs policy to put patients' needs first.
"Since declaring a war on drugs 40 years ago, the United States has spent more than a trillion dollars, arrested more than 45 million people, and racked up the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yet it remains laughably easy to obtain illegal drugs. So why do we continue down this same path? Why do we talk about the drug war as if it's a success? It's a charade." (See: The house I live in)
São Paulo’s Cracolândia was Brazil’s first and is still its biggest. It is home to 2,000 addicts. But most Brazilian cities now have similar districts. Recent studies put the country’s crack-using population at 1m-1.2m, the world’s largest. Some city governments have used strong-arm tactics against the crack epidemic—with little effect other than to fill prisons, which have more than twice as many inmates as a decade ago.
For four decades, libertarians, civil rights activists and drug treatment experts have stood outside of the political mainstream in arguing that the war on drugs was sending too many people to prison, wasting too much money, wrenching apart too many families -- and all for little or no public benefit. They were always in the minority. But a sign of a new reality emerged: for the first time in four decades of polling, the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
"The current war on drugs is successful in creating further victims of acquisitive crime, increasing cost to the taxpayer to accommodate a higher prison population and allowing criminals to control and profit from the sale and distribution of Class A drugs," PGA president Eoin McLennan-Murray. "A fundamental review of the prohibition-based policy is desperately required and this is why the Prison Governors Association are keen to support the Count the Costs initiative."
After more than four decades of a failed war on drugs, calls for a change in strategy are growing louder by the day. In Latin America, the debate is positively deafening. Statesmen from Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Uruguay are taking the lead for transformations in their own drug regime, which has set a strong dynamic of change across the region and around the world. Their discussion has expanded to the US, where public opinion toward regulation is also changing. (See also: Western leaders study 'gamechanging' report on global drugs trade)