Dorota Dziki


How decriminalisation could help the hidden victims of the drug trade.

In 1971, the “War on Drugs” was initiated by then-president Richard Nixon, with the aim of discouraging the production, distribution, and consumption of illegal drugs in the United States. Despite this, narcotics remains an ever-present issue, with trafficking and production only escalating on a global level in the period since. Since 1999, overdoses for women have increased year on year by 9.5%, with figures for men even more damning at 18%. In response to this, academics and those working in public policy have sought to shift the conversation to one of decriminalisation – which is seen as a means of reducing overdoses, needle-transmitted HIV infections, and drug related crime. However, the pursuit of decriminalisation in Western Europe and North America does little to mitigate the risks for those who have been persistently caught up in the drug trade, as suppliers and auxiliaries of those driving consumption. 

The US-led “War on Drugs” played a pivotal role in escalating drug-related violence in Central and South America, the source of much of the world’s cocaine. The UN estimates that, in 2015, between 7,000 and 11,000 died in drug-related deaths in Latin and South America; not only as a matter of overdosing, but as a result of violence caused by gangs fighting over territory. This is a direct consequence of a high demand for drugs in the US, where legislation has often privileged the western, middle-class consumer above those who are directly or indirectly involved in the production of drugs. Indeed, farmers in Latin America have suffered as a result of crops being destroyed, owing to a crop eradication programme enacted by the US government – a programme which began almost a decade prior to Nixon’s characterisation of a “War on Drugs”. Crucially, many remain exploited by a system that has made the drugs trade a preferable option for farmers and mules because of the financial incentives of producing drug crops.

Poverty plays a tremendous role in facilitating the drug issue in Central America; with half of the region’s population living below the poverty line. For many, becoming involved with the production and transportation of drugs is the only alternative to starvation. Take  drug mules, for instance, who risk their lives by smuggling drugs over borders in their own bodies. In 2018, the mother of an 11-year-old boy smuggled 71 grams of cocaine from Brazil to Portugal, reportedly for around £2,350 - over three times the average monthly wage in her home country. She recorded a harrowing goodbye video after one of the pellets burst in her stomach, causing her to fatally overdose. Her tragic story went viral in the media, yet there continues to be a lack of protection and support for these people, who are instead subjected to brutal punishment under the criminal justice system. 

In Guatemala, drug trafficking penalties vary from 10 to 20 years under harsh and inhumane conditions. To many, the risks do not seem worth it, but for those oppressed by a system in which salaries are below subsistence levels, it is sometimes the only way to maintain some form of livelihood. Crucially, the drug trade is controlled by violent cartels, and with only 20 out of every 100 murders in Latin America actually ending in a conviction, it is easy to see why many cannot notify the authorities – for fear of violent retribution. The rates of drug-related violence have also continued to grow in the past decades; in 2008, the President of Honduras called for the United States to legalise drugs as a preventative measure that would reduce the level of violent murder that took place in the country. At a fundamental level, it is clear that the complete illegality of drugs has allowed for the perpetuation of a violent culture outside the walls of major consumer states. 

Whilst the western media continues to vilify those caught up in the middle of the drug trade, the discourse surrounding stigma related to consumption remains equally prevalent. The sale of illegal drugs has negative repercussions closer to home; take, for example, Britain, where between 2017 and 2018 there was a 27% increase in drug-related deaths in Scotland alone. Whilst there has been a perceptible shift in how drug consumption is perceived in Scotland, including defining the issue as a public health matter, the statistics remain alarming. Evidently, the rise in drug-related deaths proves that the laws in place have failed to act as a deterrent. 

Nevertheless, if drug-related crime and consumption were treated in a manner that sought to decriminalise the issue, as is evidenced in Portugal since 2001, there may be scope for a lower social cost when compared with zero tolerance. In Portugal, those found with a personal supply receive a warning and are guided towards rehabilitation by being required to see a social worker or doctor to discuss treatment. Additionally, Portugal provides facilities that seek to safely administer methadone, a substitute for heroin, and provide support for those suffering from drug abuse. Facilities were opened that are accessible seven days a week, all year round, to provide support to those in need. Decriminalisation led to Portugal’s drug crisis stabilising and, importantly, the level of needle-caused HIV infections plummeting from 104.2 cases per million in 2000, to 4.2 cases per million in 2015. If similar policies were implemented across Europe and within producing regions, then the rate at which HIV infections took hold would also plummet. 

Decriminalising drugs for personal use is certainly a step forward, but what about those involved in the manufacture and sale, particularly the young and vulnerable who, in places like Central America, are exploited by gangs and struggle to find an alternative path? Decriminalisation does not mean legalisation, and it wouldn’t make drugs more readily available, but instead means that those who are found in possession of small amounts would not have their lives ruined by a criminal record or a prison sentence. This could provide a way to closely monitor and help enforce rehabilitation. Policy cannot successfully halt drug consumption, but governments can make it safer. Stricter laws bring with it new dangers and often result in lower protection for those struggling to find a sustainable way out. Decriminalisation is not a perfect solution to the rising drug issue, but it’s a step towards positive change.

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