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Human Rights and Global Drug Policy

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.”

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The Occupational Hazards of Social Work

What is our relationship with work? How much of our lives do we spend at work? How does occupation influence other aspects of our lives? What does it mean to have a “good job” and when we tell someone to “get a job?”

For my Occupational & Environmental Health class last semester, I explored the unique occupational hazard of chronic job strain (or stress) and burnout in social work and caring professions. In public health, we are taught to conceptualize the causes of health outcomes on multiple levels: Individual (attitudes, beliefs), interpersonal (social pressures and norms), environmental (community or organizational dynamics), and societal (values held by the larger society). By mapping out elements on each level, we can comprehensively assess the problem—usually, an illness or disease—and develop appropriate interventions.

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Happenings since we left Colombia

In the month since I’ve returned…

  • An assassination attempt was made on Catholic priest and human rights defender Padre Alberto Franco of the Inter-ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, one of our delegation’s most beloved partners.
  • A women’s association of pineapple growers in the Putumayo department have had their entire harvest fumigated aerially–again.
  • Angela Bello, director of the National Foundation in Defense of Women’s Rights (FUNDHEFEM), was found dead in suspicious circumstances after an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
  • Land rights advocates won a small victory when an agriculture judge issued an injunction for up to six months, blocking mining companies from operating illegally on collectively-owned indigenous land in Choco and Antioquia.

And that’s just what I’ve been able to keep up with. In the meantime, the incredible International Team with Witness for Peace has uploaded our delegation’s Report on the Impact of the U.S. War on Drugs in Colombia (translated Spanish version also available). Thank you to everyone who told us their stories and everyone who worked on this important document.

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Faces of Addiction: Portraits of Hunts Point

Mary Alice and new jewelry (click through for full story – Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Just Judge)

I spent nearly two years working at the clinic on Hunts Point Ave., in the neighborhood of the South Bronx where Chris Arnade takes portraits. Many of the faces—of people who would be labelled by some as addicts, prostitutes, pimps, dealers—are familiar to me. I knew them simply as patients. My relationship with Hunts Point, now, is terribly complicated. I no longer go there, but I remember it every single day. It has stayed with me. Despite that, I hope that those who remember coming to me at the clinic, remember being treated with respect, humility, and humanity, as we all always deserve.

Indeed a lot about addiction is ugly, but it does not mean an addict has abdicated every shred of their self-worth.

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A Test Too Far: Opposing Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

Among only the latest of the states with lawmakers proposing required drug testing for public assistance beneficiaries are Ohio, Kansas, and New Hampshire. But these bills have been popping up in state legislatures and even in Congress since the 2008 recession hit. Pitched as “cost-saving” measures to avoid wasteful spending, the irony is that Florida–the only state to have implemented drug testing for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program–actually lost money in its drug testing initiative, before it was halted by a federal district court judge,[1] who ruled it an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment.[2]

CC-BY-NC-SA by K`Tetch

This time last year, my “law office” of first-year law students was hammering out the first draft of the advocacy manual we prepared for our client, the Drug Policy Alliance. I was part of the Statutes team, which conducted an extensive policy analysis of the provisions of the 81 proposed state bills (shoutout to J.G., Gelman and Sully… Bills, bills bills!). We were left with many questions: What will happen to the benefits meant for a child when her parent tests positive? Can the drug test results be used in criminal or child protection cases? Why do half of these proposals lack any substance abuse treatment provisions? Can a sanctioned participant appeal or reapply? Most of the proposed statutes did not provide any satisfactory answers regarding how the drug testing requirement would help low-income families.

Others in the law office researched the fiscal impact, the (un)reliability of urine testing and the likelihood of false positives, the prevalence of drug users among the TANF and general populations (comparable), and constitutional case law on suspicionless government searches. Every single person on the fourteen-member team contributed in a meaningful way to the project, which is really saying something–what an amazing group! At the end of March, we proudly presented our work to the client, alongside that of Jon Stewart & Aasif Mandvi:

The Daily Show: “Poor Pee-ple,” Feb. 6, 2012.

We also had the opportunity to contribute to the ACLU’s answer brief in the case of Luis Lebron, the navy veteran and single dad who is featured in Stewart’s bit above. Lebron v. Wilkins has been appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but it’s not looking too good for the state of Florida and its governor, Rick Scott. [Coincidentally, Scott used to own shares in a chain of drug-testing clinics called Solantic. He transferred those shares to his a trust in his wife’s name prior to the legislation passing in the Florida state assembly.]

Profile in NUSL Magazine of Law Office 14's LSSC Project for the Drug Policy Alliance (2011-2012)

Profile in NUSL Magazine of Law Office 14’s LSSC Project for the Drug Policy Alliance (2011-2012)

Challenges of the Legal Skills in Social Context (LSSC) program aside, our project really exemplified the spirit of the curriculum. We worked tirelessly to oppose an insidious legislative trend targeting the most vulnerable members of our society: very low income families with children. This is a great example of the ways in which the law often serves to further disenfranchise and marginalized unpopular groups, which is an essential lesson to learn as budding attorneys. I am so proud of the final project that LO 14 created for our client, and so grateful to Northeastern Law’s LSSC program and the Drug Policy Alliance for this incredible opportunity to do meaningful work as a first-year law student.

  1. Miami Herald. Oct. 25, 2011. Florida’s welfare drug testing halted by federal judge. From
  2. Congressional Research Service. (2012). Constitutional analysis of suspicionless drug testing requirements for the receipt of government benefits. From

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Colombia’s population of internally displaced people has now surpassed the Sudan to become the largest in the world. (3.9 to 5.3 million at year end 2011, 65 percent under 25 years old).[1] Displacement, or forced migration, has multiple interacting causes, including multinational trade agreements favoring extractive industries, Colombia’s ongoing violence as part of its armed conflict, political corruption, and woefully inadequate infrastructure and public services.

Since the 1990s, paramilitary “auto-defensa” groups financed by wealthy landowners have forced farmers off fertile land and areas with natural resources like gold, oil, and other minerals. Foreign investment has tripled since 2002, and about 1 in 20 Colombians has been newly displaced since then. However, none of the funds have trickled down to average Colombian citizens, many of whom have historically lived in areas with small agricultural economies. According to a recent piece in The Economist:

Land distribution in Colombia is among the most unequal in the world, with 52% of farms in the hands of just 1.15% of landowners, according to a study by the United Nations Development Programme. The agriculture ministry says that only 22% of potential arable land in a vast country is cultivated. Around 6.5m hectares (16m acres) of land, including some of the most fertile, was stolen, abandoned or forcibly changed hands in other ways between 1985 and 2008 as a result of the conflict.

Additionally, several U.S. companies have been sued under the Alien Tort Statute [2] for aiding and abetting paramilitary groups by making “security” payments. Most recently, a suit has been brought against Chiquita Banana’s wholly owned subsidiary, Banadex, by families in the Urabá region whose loved ones were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia). The class action is pending[3]; but other American companies in Colombia have faced faced allegations of “synergistic relationships” with hired “security contractors” (paramilitaries).[4] In this context, security for multinational corporations is but a thinly-veiled justification for the forceful, violent annexation and evacuation of indigenous and campesino families from their agriculturally viable, and valuable, resource-rich land.

Despite collective title vested in Afro-Colombian communities in 1993 through Law 70, and nominal protection of land as resguardos (reserves of legally inalienable land to indigenous communities), land continues to be illegally stolen and sold to foreign agribusiness companies, who use it to produce oil palm and other raw materials for agro-fuel for sale in the international market.[5] The Colombian Constitution has been modified nearly 70 times since 1991, as political elites (closely tied to both private multinational corporations and paramilitary actors) have manipulated the laws to favor growth of lucrative, privatized, extractive industries–using “security” and “protection” to forcibly remove people from their property. These latifundas (landgrabs) have forced migration of indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians to the outskirts of cities such as Cali, where they face enormous marginalization in makeshift refugee settlements: minimal employment opportunities in agriculture, poor housing not supported or recognized by municipal governments, and outright racial discrimination from citydwellers and police.

Ukawexs, Nasa refugee settlement outside Cali, Colombia. Photo credit: Hillary Watson

Ukawexs, Nasa refugee settlement outside Cali, Colombia. Photo credit: Hillary Watson

On my recent trip to Colombia, we visited one such settlement high in the mountains outside the city of Cali, where more than 500 families have sought refuge from the Cauca region over the past 5-10 years. This indigenous refugee camp is home to members of the Nasa people, who are committed to nonviolent resistance to displacement and militarization of their land. Despite being left with almost nothing, they welcomed us into their homes with open arms and gave us everything they had. I will always remember the generosity and resilience of spirit in the face of extreme hardship. Even though they have been demonized and portrayed as savages by mass media since they peacefully removed a military installation from their sacred mountain in July 2012, they trusted us and shared with us.

Our delegation compiled a report to tell the stories (English) (Spanish) of the Nasa settlement and its courageous leaders, along with and those of many other Colombians negatively affected by U.S. military and counternarcotics aid. We submitted the report to the U.S. Embassy when we met with embassy staff on our last day in Bogota.

  1. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. (2012). Global overview 2011. From
  2. 28 U.S.C. § 1350, establishing tort jurisdiction in U.S. federal courts over violations of the “law of nations.”
  3. In re Chiquita Brands Int’l, Inc., 792 F. Supp. 2d. 1301 (S.D. Fla. 2011).
  4. Romero v. Drummond Co., 552 F.3d 1303 (11th Cir. 2008).
  5. Hristov, J. (2009). NACLA Report: Colombia. Legalizing the illegal: Paramilitarism in Colombia’s ‘post-paramilitary’ era. From