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.
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.
An unprecedented one-year comparative study of the drug laws and prison systems in eight Latin American countries - Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay - will be released on December 9, 2010, by the Transnational Institute (TNI) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America is the first major study to explore the way drug laws have contributed to prison overcrowding, analyze who is imprisoned on drug charges, and evaluate the impact of incarceration on people's lives, their families and their communities. Based on the available data, each country-study presents and analyzes statistics on the situation in the prisons, including levels of over-crowding; the percentage of prisoners behind bars on drug charges; the percentage of those who are consumers, low-level offenders or bigger traffickers; and the level of involvement in the drug trade of those in jail.
On September 29, 2010 the Associated Press (AP) published an article entitled Ecuador: Almost 3,000 Detained for Narco-Trafficking in Eight Months. The article, which states how many were arrested for possession and how many for international trafficking, insinuates that such large numbers of people detained on drug charges indicates that Ecuador is playing a key role in decreasing the amount of illicit drugs that are trafficked in the Andean region. However, the key questions to ask after reading the article are: who are these 3000 people and has their detention led to an actual decrease in the movement of drugs through Ecuador?
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.
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.
In February, the Italian Constitutional Court ruled that most of the 2006 drug law norms were unconstitutional. Following this pronouncement, at the end of May, the Court of Cassation decided that people sentenced and incarcerated under the illegitimate norms have the right to be resentenced. The decision may affect about 10.000 prisoners detained for cannabis crimes.
The story of the Mexican drug war has generally focused on the violence perpetrated by drug cartels and the apparent inability to bring so many criminals to justice. Unfortunately—while it’s true many have evaded justice—there remain many more people who use drugs and those with very low levels of involvement in the drug trade, who have been swept up in recent crackdowns.
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.
Within the international drugs market, Argentina is a “trans-shipment” country for cocaine. Recent decades have seen an increase in the consumption of narcotic and psychotropic substances in the country, and in recent years laboratories for the production of cocaine hydrochloride, though not on the scale of those in Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia, have begun to appear. 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.
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.
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.
When she was 66 years old, Alicia Castilla was put in jail for three months for cultivating marijuana, which she used to help her sleep better. In this video testimony, she talks about the suffering caused by her imprisonment in Canelones (an Uruguayan prison) and her experience with the justice system in Uruguay.
In Brazil, possession of drugs for personal consumption is punished with educational measures and community service, not prison. In this video, a young man tells of the disparity in sentencing between the wealthy and the poor.
Intercambios Civil Association and the Social Sciences School of the University of Buenos Aires launched the book “Encarcelamientos por delitos relacionados con estupefacientes en Argentina” (Imprisonment for drugs related offenses in Argentina) by Alejandro Corda on the 29th of August, 2011.
During the 20th century, drug policies in Colombia were increasingly repressive, largely ineffective, and heavily influenced by the international legal framework that was put in place. In effect, in just a few years Colombia went from having a scattered set of regulations, with an emphasis on prevention and medical-administrative treatment, to having legislation abundant in definitions of criminal conduct and sanctions that included the full drug cycle, from production through marketing and trafficking to consumption.
Martha Ines Miravete was a stage actress in Buenos Aires. She recalls how, in 1994, a man changed her life by inviting her to participate in a video project in Brazil. She was excited at the opportunity for new work and the chance to travel for the first time. But, she was stopped at the airport, the luggage was searched, and cocaine was found.