Across the Americas, an unprecedented debate on drug policy reform is underway. While a regional consensus on what form those reforms should take remains elusive, there are at least two issues where consensus is growing: the need to address drug use as a public health, rather than criminal, issue and the need to promote alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and ensure proportionality in sentencing for drug-related crimes. Draconian drug laws were often adopted in Latin American countries with the encouragement – if not outright diplomatic, political and economic pressure – from the U.S. government.
Latin America is now at the vanguard of international efforts to promote drug policy reform: Bolivia has rewritten its constitution to recognize the right to use the coca leaf for traditional and legal purposes, Uruguay has become the first nation in the world to adopt a legal, regulated Cannabis market, and Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador are openly critiquing the prevailing international drug control paradigm at the UN. And now with the United States itself relaxing its marijuana laws state by state, the U.S. prohibitionist drug war strategies are losing credibility in the region.
Criminalisation of drug users, excessive levels of imprisonment, and punitive sentencing practices, including mandatory sentencing, the death penalty and enforced ‘drug detention centres’, are some of the unintended negative consequences of the 50 year ‘war on drugs’, a policy with direct impact on the vulnerable, poor and socially excluded groups, including ethnic minorities and women. This PRI briefing paper discusses these consequences in detail and sets out what parliamentarians can do about it.
Remarkable drug policy developments are taking place in Latin America. This is not only at the level of political debate, but is also reflected in actual legislative changes in a number of countries. All in all there is an undeniable regional trend of moving away from the ‘war on drugs’. This briefing explains the background to the opening of the drug policy debate in the region, summarises the most relevant aspects of the ongoing drug law reforms in some countries, and makes a series of recommendations that could help to move the debate forward in a productive manner.
The new report is the first to calculate the total number of females in prisons on drug offences in Europe and Central Asia. It provides an analysis of developments related to women drug offending and the criminal justice system in Europe and Central Asia, and also largely focuses on numbers of women convicted for drug offending (violation of drug laws) that are in prisons.
America’s growing reliance on drug courts is an ineffective allocation of scarce state resources. Drug courts can needlessly widen the net of criminal justice involvement, and cannot replace the need for improved treatment services in the community. Of the nearly 8 million people in the U.S. reporting needing treatment for drug use, less than one fourth of people classified with substance abuse or a dependence on drugs and/or alcohol receives treatment, and for those who do receive treatment, over 37 percent are referred by the criminal justice system.
An unprecedented one-year comparative study on the impact of the drug laws and prison systems in 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 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.
The number of people imprisoned for drug offenses in Brazil has increased over the last 20 years, but this has not affected the availability or consumption of drugs, reveals a study by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The study also shows that those who are locked up for drug offenses are mainly small-scale dealers who represent the lowest links in drug distribution operations, and not the large-scale wholesale traffickers who dominate the country’s illicit drug trafficking trade.
In Colombia, most of the people incarcerated for drug-related crime are merely small-scale participants in the drug trafficking networks, reveals the study Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America published by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
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.
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.
In Peru, the law on drugs does not punish drug use or drug possession for personal use by imprisonment. Nonetheless, as the Peru chapter of the study Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America concludes, the Peruvian authorities treat drug use as if it were criminal conduct. As a result, the police are overwhelmed, trials are delayed, and the prisons are filled.
Uruguay has one of the most advanced drug policies on the continent. In Uruguay, the law does not criminalize drug use or possession of drugs for personal use. In addition, in recent years its national drug policies have prioritized the prosecution of medium and large-scale traffickers rather than focusing resources and energy on small-time dealers who are easily replaced.
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.
Peru is a major world producer of coca leaf and its derivatives. Since the year 2000, successive Peruvian administrations have followed a drug policy focused on supply reduction through interdiction and eradication strategies. The law on drugs does not punish drug use or drug possession for personal use by imprisonment. Nonetheless, the Peruvian authorities treat drug use as if it were criminal conduct. As a result, the police are overwhelmed, trials are delayed, and the prisons are filled.
Uruguay has one of the most advanced drug policies on the continent. In Uruguay, the law does not criminalize drug use or possession of drugs for personal use. In addition, in recent years its national drug policies have prioritized the prosecution of medium and large-scale traffickers rather than focusing resources and energy on small-time dealers who are easily replaced. This country study examines the scope of the legislation, the policies developed and how the normative and policy frameworks find expression in Uruguay’s prison system, with a special focus on the population incarcerated for drug-related offenses.
Bolivia’s participation in the international drug-trafficking circuit was determined by a series of factors, ranging from the ancestral tradition of growing and consuming coca leaf, to the endemic poverty of the population (per capita GDP is less than US$ 1,000) and the structural weakness of state institutions.
Mexico is currently undergoing one of the worst crises in its history in terms of violence and insecurity. This crisis is directly related to the strengthening of organized crime in Mexico associated with drug trafficking, the divisions within the leading drug trafficking cartels, and their diversification. All this has resulted in a bloody struggle to control the key markets for the trafficking routes. The response of the Calderón administration has been a “war on organized crime” with two key elements: the growing use of the armed forces in public security tasks, and legal reforms aimed at more effectively fighting organized crime and, in particular, those involved in the trafficking, commerce, and supply of drugs.
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.