WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
5 Jul 2015 | Commentary

What does it mean to have a human rights-oriented drug policy?

Each year, the Washington Office on Latin America gives human rights awards to individuals who promote human rights and justice as the foundation of public policies in Latin America. One of this year’s recipients was Ambassador Milton Romani Gerner, Uruguay’s Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States (OAS). A union leader and human rights activist under Uruguay’s military dictatorship, he has been a pioneer in promoting a human rights-oriented drug policy.

The U.S. “war on drugs” has had a devastating impact on those in the region on the front-lines, including poor farmers pushed deeper into poverty when their coca plants are eradicated, Colombians forced to join the ranks of the country’s internally displaced when their crops are sprayed, and non-violent drug offenders who, as a result of disproportionate sentencing policies put forth by Washington, spend years and years in jail. U.S.-backed drug policies have led to social unrest, violence and human rights violations.

Latin American countries are increasingly calling into question the very high costs that they have paid to wage a war, the ultimate objective of which is to benefit consumer countries—and a war that has failed to achieve the stated objective of stemming the flow of illicit drugs. To its credit, the Obama administration has done away with the drug war rhetoric, has placed far more emphasis on dealing with American’s appetite for mind-altering substances, and most recently has begun to advocate reform of tough drug sentencing and incarceration policies. Yet its international drug control policies remain largely on auto-pilot.

The time is ripe for the U.S. government to put human rights first when it comes to drug policy, both at home and abroad. It can take the lead from Ambassador Romani, who, at the WOLA ceremony, said: “The goal is to guarantee the preeminence of human rights as international law, over the system of drug control. To end at last the catastrophe that is the war on drugs, which causes more damage than it pretends to eliminate.” As the head of Uruguay’s national drug agency and later roving ambassador on human rights and drug policy issues, Ambassador Romani has shown that drug policies can be redesigned to be both more humane and more effective.

A thorough review of implementing a human rights-based drug policy is beyond the scope of this commentary (see TNI’s recent report, Human Rights and Drug Policy, for more detailed analysis). But here are five places to start:

Recognize the rights of drug users. The OAS report, The Drug Problem in the Americas, reflects a growing trend in Latin America calling for the decriminalization of drug consumption; in other words, drug use should be treated as a public health, not criminal, issue. This implies distinguishing between types of consumption: occasional, recreational, or dependent drug use. For dependent drug users, evidence-based treatment programs are sorely needed. It is also important to distinguish between types of drugs and the possible damage that they can cause—precisely what is at the center of the cannabis debate today.

Ensure respect for the rule of law. A human rights-based drug policy necessitates that the punishment be proportionate to the crime committed. In other words, drug laws should ensure proportionality in sentencing, distinguishing between low, medium, and high-level drug offenses; the role of the accused in drug trafficking networks; violent and non-violent offenses; and between different types of drugs. Alternatives to incarceration should be established for those accused of low-level, non-violent drug offenses. This is particularly important with regard to the increasing number of women incarcerated for drug-related crimes, and especially for single mothers.

In addition, law enforcement and justice sectors resources are disproportionately—and unjustly—spent persecuting cannabis users. Creating legal, regulated cannabis markets, as Uruguay is in the process of doing, would help solve that problem.

Promote social inclusion. Both dependent drug users and those incarcerated for drug-related offenses finish their treatment or complete their sentences and leave with few possibilities for reconstructing their lives. As a result, the vast majority, who already tend to come from the poorest sectors of society, return to drug use or illicit activities. Strong social reinsertion programs are needed; programs that include education, access to adequate housing and employment that generates sufficient income so that these individuals can lead a life with dignity.

End forced eradication and promote economic development. The eradication of coca or poppy crops is counter-productive unless alternative livelihoodsare already firmly in place. Decades of experience has shown that the rapidly obtained short-term results are quickly reversed as crops are replanted or are displaced to another area or even another country. At the same time, forced eradication worsens the situation of poverty for some of the most marginalized populations in the world and generates violence, conflict, and human rights violations. A much more effective strategy, as has been demonstrated in Thailand and more recently in Bolivia, is to improve the overall quality of life of those who cultivate coca or poppy and ensure alternative sources of income through integral development policies, followed by voluntary and gradual coca reduction efforts.

Implement policies aimed at reducing violence. Drug law enforcement efforts have traditionally focused on reducing the scale or size of the illicit drug market, with little attention to how those policies might lead to increased—or reduced—violence. The tens of thousands of people killed in Mexico in recent years has put a spotlight on such collateral damage. More viable strategies for reducing drug-related crime and violence are focused deterrence and selective targeting strategies, which have shown some success in reducing violent crime in certain areas of the United States. Rather than trying to reduce the size of drug markets, enforcement efforts should seek to reduce criminal behavior in ways that discourage violence, for example by sending a clear message that those criminal organizations that engage in the most violence will be the primary target of law enforcement. Ultimately, the goal should be to minimize the harm caused to communities—from drug use, drug trafficking, and drug policies themselves.

Photo: Ambassador Milton Romani. Courtesy.