Pandora’s Box

Engraving by F.S. Church.
Engraving by F.S. Church.

Today’s drug policies are finally under debate. Above all, they are in crisis.

Their stated objective was to establish a policy to control numerous hazardous substances, to prevent the addictive behaviours that these substances arouse in those who consume them. These substances were considered so dangerous that the best way to ensure that people stay away from them was to declare them illegal, making their purchase, possession or consumption a crime. This framework was accompanied by a moral conception of the substances themselves and of the ‘degeneration’ of populations associated with consumption, which justified their being persecuted and discriminated against. It created a radical policy of prevention.

But things were not as simple as they appeared in this plan, which was actively promoted by the United States throughout the twentieth century. Over time, darker layers have unfolded almost everywhere in the world. While it is not self-evident, there are deep connections between drug prohibition policies and incarceration rates, the rate of HIV transmission, the militarisation of citizen security in the Americas, the return of the practice of enforced disappearances in Mexico, lack of access to pain treatment for terminally ill patients, and social control over marginalised sectors of society. All of these are tied to strong imbalances in the international burden of a war doomed to failure from its inception.

Why are human rights organisations in Latin America worried about this? Why are feminist organisations voicing their opinion? Why are peasant leaders speaking out? Why are an increasing number of scholars from the most prestigious academic institutions raising alarm bells among policymakers?

In Latin America, it is because the situation is dramatically exposed. Sustaining prohibition has involved a series of actions focused on criminal penalties and military and police action to combat drug trafficking. The mandate is to stop the shipment of drugs to Europe and North America in order to prevent consumption. This has had an impact in many communities, particularly those most directly affected due to their geographic location along trafficking routes or their climatic conditions favorable to drug crops. These communities have experienced levels of violence equivalent to civil war in some cases, and tens of thousands of lives have been lost in recent years.

Practices such as
systematic torture or enforced disappearance, which have distressing precedents in the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, have also returned. Nevertheless, the steady rise in the use of security forces, armed forces, land and maritime patrols, helicopters, radar, and increasingly sophisticated weapons has not been effective in achieving the main goal of these policies: to reduce the supply of prohibited substances. The criminal organisations that dominate these illegal markets continue to operate, and they easily replace members who are killed or imprisoned.

Organised crime has shown a remarkable capacity for penetrating security forces, political institutions and judicial systems, mainly due to the huge profits these organisations reap from illegal markets.

In production and trafficking regions like Latin America, consumption has also become a worrying variable. The rise in local consumption is creating concern in society, which tends to react fearfully. Drugs are identified as the cause of security problems and crime (ignoring social inequality and other structural causes) and, as a result, society resorts to punitive and control-oriented actions. These criminal justice approaches and laws directly associate drugs and crime. Furthermore, without rigorous empirical evidence, they sustain and justify the criminalisation of consumers, particularly among the poor.

The effects of this problem have become so widespread in Latin American countries that many social organizations working on human rights issues in neighbourhoods and communities, or on justice issues in prisons, or health issues, have come up against serious situations rooted in drug control laws on a daily basis.

CELS (the Center for Legal and Social Studies) is a human rights organisation in Argentina with a long tradition of working on security, justice and prison policies. In the mid-2000s, while conducting research on the violence in women’s prisons, we found prisons in the north of the country that were populated entirely by women who had been detained on the border with Bolivia with small amounts of drugs in their possession. They accounted for 100% of the population in these prisons, and all of them were convicted (or waiting to be sentenced) for the same crime: drug trafficking. Every one of them receives the same penalty: four and a half years in prison.

The incidence of drug offences in the imprisonment of women has soared since the mid-1990s in every country in Latin America. In Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and Peru, over 60% of the female prison population is incarcerated for drug-related offences.

Exorbitant increases have been recorded in some countries.


The female prison population in Colombia grew by 459% from 1991 to 2014 (168 points more than the male prison population). In Mexico, the number of women imprisoned for federal crimes has risen by 400% since 2007. In Argentina, the female prison population serving time for drug-related offences increased 271% from 1989 to 2008. In Brazil, there was growth of 290% over the period 2005–2013.

The driving forces behind the exorbitant rates of incarceration are the extremely punitive drug laws being passed and the imposition of disproportionate penalties.

Similarly, work done on justice and citizen security from a human rights perspective reveals clear dynamics regarding the relationship with drug laws that are impossible to overlook. Policies against drug trafficking almost monopolise discussions on security in many countries, introducing the logic associated with police and military action, which has intensified the levels of violence. The use of armed forces in Mexico and Central America, the territorial occupation of Brazilian favelas (or shanty-towns) and Peru’s rural producing regions – with all the human rights violations that accompany its use – have led to the definition of new forms of intervention in security, blurring the limits with national defence under the doctrine of new threats. 

Even countries that do not suffer from such extreme situations of violence have also changed the imprint of their security policies because of the threat of drug trafficking.

As a result, police arrests, the weakening of due process guarantees, the use of pre-trial detention and the disproportionality of sentences for drug offences are all phenomena seen to varying degrees in most countries. The consequences are more overcrowding in prisons, the clogging of justice systems, and a concentration on the minor players in the trafficking chain: consumers, small local vendors and micro-traffickers. These are the people who end up in prison – without producing an even minimal reduction in the dynamics of illegal markets, which replace these minor players without losing any time, and continue to operate as if nothing happened.

And yet all of this punitive effort to reduce drug trafficking has not found its counter-part in the health field, where there are still huge gaps in healthcare for people seeking help. Were not all of these efforts being made to address rising concerns about the impact of drug use on health? Then why are countries spending over 95% of their resources on criminal prosecution?

In Latin America, the failure of the drug control system has not sparked serious reflection on the dynamics of the relationship of state institutions (police, judicial, political) with illegal markets and their informal regulation. The huge flows of money involved have led to the penetration of many state stakeholders, which raises much more complex challenges that include, for example, the necessary reform of police institutions. Today, it would be hard to develop democratic citizen security policies in Latin America without addressing these issues.

The number of organisations that have begun to reflect upon and question the international drug control regime in the region is growing. They are also increasingly diverse in nature.

The international debate on the effectiveness of the existing control regime only partly addresses the consequences of the system’s implementation. There is still no full acceptance of the international regulatory framework’s responsibility for the situations created. The global system seems to support the idea that the debate about drug policy is a discussion about drugs.

And what reality shows is that this debate about drug policy is really a discussion about health, wellbeing, justice, rights, development and equality. We have before us a prohibitionist model that has increased violence and broadened social gaps, economic inequities, political differences and international asymmetries. The international system must attempt to intervene in this business’s terms of trade, and states must stop using the ‘scourge’ of drugs to justify actions that violate human rights.

‘Pandora’s box’ has been open for some time, and its evils have spread out. But in the story of Pandora, ‘hope’ still remained at the bottom of the box. Now, there is a need to rethink a system that has caused much greater damage than what it was supposed to prevent. The number and variety of voices joining this debate show that the consensus has been broken, and it’s time to think about change.

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