Drug Policy Reform Is the New Human Rights Movement on the Block

12/15/2015 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2016
A photo taken on August 4, 2015 shows the gangway at Clairvaux Prison in Ville-sous-la-Ferte, northwestern France, . AFP PHOT
A photo taken on August 4, 2015 shows the gangway at Clairvaux Prison in Ville-sous-la-Ferte, northwestern France, . AFP PHOTO / FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, more than 1,500 people from 71 countries gathered in the suburbs of Washington D.C. with one common goal: to end the War on Drugs. Attendees included diverse groups of people with strikingly different perspectives on drug policy; doctors, lawyers, Rastafarians, war veterans, and formerly incarcerated people amongst others. The diversity of this dynamic group reflects both the widespread impact of drug laws, and the urgent need for their reform.

There is growing consensus that the prohibitionist policies propagated by the U.S. have failed. Not only have they failed to decrease drug use and production, they have also led to a multitude of human rights violations worldwide.

The global drug regime has long been characterized by punishment and repression. The use, possession, cultivation, distribution, or trafficking of any narcotic drug invites criminal charges and lengthy prison sentences. After more than five decades of this approach, individuals and governments are beginning to acknowledge what those in the drug policy reform movement have been saying for years -- prohibition doesn't work. The goal of a 'drug free society' is unrealistic, as it fails to take into account human tendencies, cultural context, and the medical importance of the outlawed substances.

The focus on punishment has not decreased drug use or trade. Instead, the drug trade is more dangerous and profitable than ever and drug laws are used as tools of oppression against racial and ethnic minorities. Communities of color are consistently punished disproportionately for drug offences in the West. In the U.S., for example, though African-Americans constitute 13 percent of drug users in the country, they make up 37 percent of those arrested for drug use. Sentencing can also vary greatly based on which community is perceived to use a particular drug. As per the U.S "Fair Sentencing Act," 'crack' cocaine, a drug associated with the African-American/economically disadvantaged communities, is punished 18 times more severely than powder cocaine, a drug used by wealthy white folk. Higher arrests and incarceration rates for people of color have led to mass incarceration and a fractured criminal justice system. American politicians are finally making a pledge to decrease their prison population, beginning with the release of many non-violent drug offenders.

While the impact of poor drug laws on the criminal justice system has entered American public discourse, it is not a uniquely American experience. Around the world, drug laws give law enforcement the power to act with force and impunity. The story of Edo Nasution, who was shot, hung upside down, and tortured by the Indonesian police, after having been caught using drugs in the street, shows the shocking brutality with which authorities deal with people who use drugs. Laws are often used as a threat by policemen towards female drug users, who are sexually assaulted by policemen. The horrifying story of American Police Officer Daniel Hotlzclaw, who used the threat of drug laws against black women while on duty in the low-income community he patrolled, to commit the multiple counts of rape, sexual assault, and sexual battery he was recently convicted for, has brought into focus the impunity drug laws can give law enforcement.

The repressive stance taken by most governments also has a massive impact on access to medicines for pain relief. Stigma attached to drugs such as morphine, and fears that these drugs will be diverted for recreational use has led to a severe shortage of these drugs for medical use, especially in developing countries. As a result, 75% of people in the world don't have access to the pain relief medication they desperately need.

It is in this context that the U.N. has called for a Special Session on Drugs in 2016. The Office of Human Rights has explicitly stated that "excessively punitive approaches to drug control have resulted in countless human rights violations, including the right to health" and UN bodies including the WHO and UNAIDS have emphasized the need for a change in the international drug control regime. Most recently, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health has published an open letter stating that repressive drug policies have an adverse impact on the full and effective realization of the right to health, particularly for those from minority communities. The focus of the drug regime must change from punishment and incarceration to health and human rights, and the UN Special Session is the big opportunity to make that change.

The drug war affects millions around the world. It impedes the right to health of both drug users and the wider community, it restricts scientific and medical use, and it gives law enforcement a justification for corruption and brutality. The quest for drug law reform is thus a part of a wider vision for social justice, and we must change drug laws in order to begin to undo all the intended and unintended human rights violations that they have created.

Suchitra Rajagopalan is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Laws at the University of Mumbai and has received her B.A. in Politics and Law from Sciences Po Paris. She is interested in human rights, drug policy, and health law.