Punitive Drug Policies Fuel Human Rights Abuses

In December 2016 five year old Francis Mañosca was shot dead by masked gunmen in Manila. His death is a result of the Philippines ‘war on drugs’; a war that was escalated by President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2016 when he came to power and called on citizens and the police to kill those who use drugs and those involved in the drug trade. Since then, it is estimated that nearly 9,000 Filipinos have been massacred. These practices are not limited to the Philippines.

In 2003, Thailand launched its own war on drugs which saw nearly 2,800 people killed. Between 2010 and 2013, Brazilian police killed over 1,200 people in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro. In one favela, Amnesty International estimated that 90 per cent of the deaths should be classed as extrajudicial killings.

There are 33 countries which retain the death penalty for drug offences, leading to the execution of several hundred people every year. This is a flagrant violation of international law, as The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that the death penalty should only be used for the “most serious crimes”.

The escalation of law enforcement approaches has also led to significant loss of life in Mexico where, in the last ten years, there have been 175,000 homicides. The majority of these deaths have been linked to the drug war, particularly a 2006 government decision to militarise drug law enforcement. 

These are some of the more egregious examples of the human rights abuses that are directly linked to the ‘war on drugs’, but government drug policies are fuelling human rights abuses around the world. When the primary tool for tackling drug use is criminalisation, people’s fundamental human rights are undermined.

In South East Asia and China, the use of compulsory detention centres for people who use drugs is promoted under the guise of “treatment” - but in reality, reports of torture, rape, and forced labour are common in these facilities, where both adults and children are detained.

The right to health is also undermined significantly by punitive drug policies. Nowhere is this more evident than in Russia, where, as a result of tough drug laws and a lack of sufficient healthcare, one in 100 adults is HIV positive. This has been directly attributed to the prohibition of opiate substitute prescribing, and a lack of government support for effective interventions such as needle exchange programmes.

In Colombia, where the coca plant is cultivated, the state deploys aerial eradication using glyphosate, a possibly carcinogenic herbicide. This chemical has been linked to a number of health harms including skin conditions, miscarriages, and respiratory problems. It has also led to the destruction of food crops, resulting in the displacement of thousands of Colombian farmers.

Prohibitionist drug policies are also driving mass incarceration across the globe. The United States has five per cent of the world’s population but 25 per cent of the world’s prison population, and more than 50 per cent of US federal prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offences. One of the most heinous aspects of the US criminal justice system is the racist nature of how drugs laws are implemented. Black people are far more likely to be targeted for drug offences, and drugs which are wrongly associated with the black community attract harsher penalties.

Until 2010, someone caught in possession of crack cocaine would receive a sentence that was 100 times more punitive compared to someone caught in possession of the same amount of powder cocaine. This was despite there being no pharmacological difference between the two, except the removal of hydrochloride from powder cocaine to allow crack to be smoked. This ratio has now been reduced to 18 times, which is still a shocking disparity. Whilst crack cocaine prevalence rates are about the same among white and black populations, law enforcement continue to focus their efforts on poor, black neighbourhoods. This has led to a situation where an estimated one in four black men in America will end up in jail.

These discriminatory practices are not limited to the US; drug policing in the UK disproportionately impacts black communities.  In England and wales, black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, despite the fact that drug use is higher amongst the white population. Racial disparity for drug offences is evident at all stages of the criminal justice system, with black people caught in possession of drugs receiving harsher penalties compared to white people. A recent review by David Lammy MP found that black women in England and Wales were 2.3 times more likely to be imprisoned for a drug offence than white women. This undermines the principle of equal treatment under the law and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The violation of people’s rights in the UK is also apparent in health and social policies. Legislation introduced in 2014 allows for the mandatory eviction of a tenant if they, a member of their household, or a guest, commits a drug offence (excluding possession). This can include a supply offence, and it is important to remember that UK drug laws do not distinguish between supply for profit and supply between friends.  

In the UK, those who use drugs problematically also face significant hurdles when accessing treatment due to a postcode lottery, whereby the quality of treatment varies significantly by region. People who receive methadone as a substitute for street heroin are experiencing an increasingly punitive treatment environment, including drug testing, daily supervised consumption of their medication, and forced reductions of their dose. This is resultant of policies that focus on abstinence as the primary goal of treatment, rather than improving the individual’s quality of life; where policy, rather than clinical need, is the driver for reducing medication. This type of approach would simply not be accepted for any other health condition.

The core of the issue for those who use problematically is that they are defined by their drug use which is identified as a criminal act, and this does not apply equally across socio-economic groups; it is those who live in poverty who are the focus of police. The war on drugs is a war on people, particularly poor people.

In my experience the vast majority of people who use drugs problematically have suffered trauma during their lives and are self-medicating to deal with memories of abuse, abandonment, or bereavement, or to aid mental health issues. Yet they are one of the most stigmatised and marginalised groups in society.

Importantly, not all those who use drugs do so problematically. It is estimated that 90 per cent of people who use drugs do so recreationally for pleasure; the biggest risk they face is criminalisation.   

Other parts of the world though are doing it differently. Over 25 countries have ended criminal sanctions for drug possession and use – in some jurisdictions, like many US states, this is just for cannabis but countries like Portugal have decriminalised the possession of all drugs. None of these countries have seen increased levels of drug use nationally, and many have experienced positive health, socials and economic benefits.

Ultimately, drug use in and of itself causes little to no harm to society. The wider policy environment causes harm, but, as demonstrated above, this is largely due to governments actively choosing to criminalise their citizens and implement repressive policies that drive human rights violations. This is all being done with the sole aim of trying to stop people from consuming certain drugs. We have two choices: continue on a path that causes so much destruction, or choose an approach that recognises the principles of human dignity, harm reduction, and public health – an approach that has human rights at its core, and is evidenced-based.  

Niamh Eastwood is Executive Director of Release. Niamh has co-authored Release's two most recent policy papers 'The Numbers in Black And White: Ethnic Disparities In The Policing And Prosecution Of Drug Offences In England And Wales' and ‘A Quiet Revolution: Drug Decriminalisation Policies Across the Globe’. Niamh is also responsible for drafting many of Release's briefings for parliamentarians and policy makers. She has presented at international and national conferences and is regularly invited to comment in the media.

Niamh is also an Associate of The London School of Economics IDEAS International Drug Policy Project, a technical advisor to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and a member of the Expert Steering Group for the Global Drug Survey.