Reform more radical than ‘war on drugs’

Shortcomings in the repressive-only approach is forcing a change of tactics

A Colombian anti-drugs police officer checks bales of marijuana, part of a load of five tons, seized on the outskirts of Cali, Colombia. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A Colombian anti-drugs police officer checks bales of marijuana, part of a load of five tons, seized on the outskirts of Cali, Colombia. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

Increasing numbers of women are being locked up in the ferocious prison systems of Latin America in the so-called “war against drugs”. Often poor and black, they are among the hardest hit members of society, according to recently published reports from the United Nations and Transnational Institute.

With no reduction in the use of narcotics, the “war on drugs” – inaugurated in 1971 by US president Richard Nixon with emphasis on imprisonment and repression rather than prevention and treatment – is, in short order, collapsing.

The 2014 edition of the annual report from the Vienna-based UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), shows the use of narcotics has not reduced but has been stable in recent years. It states that about 243 million individuals, or 5 per cent of the world’s population aged 15-64, used an illicit drug in 2012.

Problem drug users meanwhile numbered about 27 million, roughly 0.6 per cent of the world’s adult population, or one in every 200 people.

“In recent years only one in six drug users globally has had access to or received drug dependence treatment services each year,” says Yuri Fedotov,

director of the UNODC and a former Russian ambassador in London. “Some 200,000 drug-related deaths occurred in 2012.”

The UN body does not include the successfully promoted and very profitably marketed use of tobacco and alcohol in its drug statistics.

The Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute reports how the poorer women of Latin America, are being hit proportionately harder than the men.

Between 2006 and 2011 the number of women imprisoned in the region shot up from 40,000 to 73,000 with narcotics offences being the principal charges. One of the main results is an ever-deepening crisis in the already infernal situation in the region’s overstretched, crowded and pestilential jails.

With a greater number of casualties than the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns combined, and very meagre results, the “war on drugs” – terms governments are very shy of using – has lost the support of public opinion.

In north America the use of manufactured drugs has exploded recently, according to the UNOCD. Methamphetamine manufacture expanded once again in north America where half of the 144 tons of amphetamine-type stimulants seized globally were intercepted.

Among the worst prison conditions are to be found in Colombia. At the Model Prison in Barranquilla earlier this year 10 prisoners were burned to death and 38 more were injured in battles between inmates and warders. In some cities such as Riohacha the jails contain 385 prisoners in spaces designed for 100.

Bowing to generalised distrust of the idea of a war on drugs, embarrassed US officials, charged with control of narcotics, announced last year that their efforts should no longer be called a war.

Martin Jelsma of the institute said the US was reconsidering its approach in light of the very poor results achieved by the war on drugs.

“The paradox of the ‘repressive-only’ approach – the tougher the government acts, the more profitable the drug trade becomes – is being increasingly pointed out by the media, opinion leaders, and politicians.”

Yet, the US has attempted the increasingly difficult task of maintaining pressure on Latin American governments to keep to a hard line.

Despite this, in many places governments – notably those of Bolivia, Jamaica, Uruguay and the small islands of the Caribbean, together with US states, particularly California and Washington – have been throwing off a hard line and reforming drug legislation with a view to depenalisation of drug taking.

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