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Human Rights and Global Drug Policy

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I wrote this essay for my application for a human rights fellowship to fund my fall internship with the Drug Policy Alliance. I didn’t get the funding, but I’m sharing this essay as a proponent for new approaches to drug policy based on public health and human rights.

The Drug Policy Alliance (“DPA”) plays a prominent role in the ongoing international dialogue about the role of regulation, criminalization, and medicalization of controlled substances, along with their possession, use, and abuse, and disruption of the black markets in which they are bought and sold. Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann serves as an adviser to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which states as its purpose: “to bring to the international level an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies.” The Global Commission’s 2011 report galvanized leaders in Latin America to collaborate on a momentous report by the Organization of American States (OAS), calling for a reconsideration of drug prohibition as the most effective form of drug control policy. The OAS report favored an approach “in which drug use is treated as a public health issue and consumption reduced through evidence-based prevention campaigns.”

This conception recognizes that drug harms are caused by synergistic interactions involving individual, societal, economic, and governmental factors. Prevention efforts must act simultaneously on all of these levels to be effective. However, it also assumes that complete and total eradication of those harms is not an attainable objective. The desire for mind-altering substances did not appear spontaneously; humans have sought to remedy physical, emotional, and spiritual ailments for as long as we’ve been on earth. This crucial recognition allows us to see drug control policy as a set of tools, which—if used strategically and cohesively—can achieve the more pragmatic goal of reducing the extent of problematic use of the most dangerous substances, while maintaining reasonable oversight of what use does inevitably remain.

Rooted in principles of harm reduction, this is a human rights approach to drug policy. Some may interpret that phrase to mean advocacy for the individual’s right to use illegal drugs, but that is a crass and inaccurate characterization. Instead, it entails recognition of the human rights abuses engendered by efforts to punish those who violate drug laws. Observers around the world and here in the U.S. have documented abuses faced by drug users, including mass incarceration, police harassment and violence, denial of necessary medical services, and systemic discrimination against individuals who use drugs. This treatment is incompatible with evidence-based public health goals, such as access to substance abuse treatment and recovery services, and reducing syringe-related transmission of HIV and other blood-borne infections. A human rights approach to drug policy understands that an individual who violates a drug law does so not because she is a bad person in need of punishment, but because repressive policy regimes have pushed the drug trade deeply underground, making participation in its markets more dangerous and more stigmatized. This marginalization hinders effective access to health care, housing, and employment for those suffering from addiction. Unfortunately, despite rhetoric touting a “public health approach” to drug control policy, our federal government’s budget for domestic drug control exceeds its allocation for substance abuse treatment, and dwarfs the amount spent on drug abuse prevention.

Moreover, the harms of drug law criminalization don’t stop here at home. The cultivation, preparation, transportation, and distribution of illicit drugs take place in a lucrative global economy that operates across borders, from the beginning of the supply chain through many middlemen and finally to the individual consumer. As the Global Commission’s 2011 report concluded, international strategies employed during the past 50 years, purporting to reduce supply of illicit substances, have been unsuccessful in stemming the tide of the drug trade.

Cartels and drug traffickers continue to control key territories in the Americas, across which both legal goods and contraband are exchanged. For many nations in Latin America, these lawless operations have caused unspeakable violence, terror, and addiction, and governments have responded to the calls for criminal law enforcement. The United States has piloted, then exported, encouraged, and funded such repressive policies, mainly through the supply of weapons and training to military and police. It has also targeted drug producers with “supply-side eradication” efforts (chemical or manual destruction of crops such as coca, opium poppy, and cannabis), which devastates the health and the livelihoods of the subsistence farmers who grow them. In the case of Colombia, campesinos and indigenous peoples of the Andes region have used the sacred coca leaf medicinally for more than 8,000 years. Yet since coca was targeted for control, along with cannabis and opium, by the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and later criminalized by states who became party to the 1988 Convention Against Illicit Trafficking, organized actors profiting from drug prohibition demand a high price, using violence and intimidation to extort and corrupt elected officials and displace citizens from their valuable land.

Many others have joined DPA, the Global Commission, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Institute, and Harm Reduction International in the call for fundamental reform of national and global drug control policies. Outright prohibition of drugs has destabilized and undermined the rule of law in all nations by allowing an unregulated, borderless economy to flourish financially and enforce its power through violence and corruption. Critics have likened counternarcotics trafficking efforts to a game of “Whack-a-Mole,” referring to the perpetual supply of new traffickers who appear as soon as one set of leaders has been apprehended by law enforcement. Here at home, more than half of the 2.3 million Americans behind bars have a history of substance abuse, yet only a fifth receive treatment. Drug convictions disqualify formerly incarcerated individuals from housing, employment, and public benefits. And our federal government has staunchly ignored emerging evidence that cannabis has legitimate medicinal use, jailing and prosecuting severely ill patients and caregivers whose operations comply with state law.

DPA and its allies apply the values of human rights in advocating accountability for abuses that occur in service of controlling illicit drugs. We demand a focus on vulnerable communities where drug abuse and drug economies cause serious harm, with the objective of enabling members of these communities to participate meaningfully in civil society. We prioritize rehabilitative, public health-based solutions to the problem of drug addiction. We reject the notion that those who break the law may be denied access to basic human services. Finally, we favor unrestricted scientific research into the pharmacological affects of drugs, and open and honest drug education in schools. These principles offer a promising alternative to the failed repressive prohibitionist strategies that have led to much individual and societal suffering.


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