Julia Gazdag
March 19, 2013 9:00 am

Last week, former president of Brazil and chairman of the Global Comission on Drug Policy, Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and minister of home affairs, and a member of the Global Comission on Drug Policy, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times addressing often overlooked issues in the war on drugs. The op-ed was directly in response to the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, which was focused on determining the appropriate response to illicit drugs.

Cardoso and Dreifuss wrote a thought provoking piece on the widespread abuse and dehumanizing treatment that convicted drug users face worldwide, in detention centers and prisons. They discuss the systemic marginalization of drug users, and how it has lead to these people’s human rights being marginalized. The situation is particularly bad in Russia, where drug users (who, though the op-ed doesn’t specify, I will assume have been convicted of use or possession), are forced into cramped conditions, “with inadequate food, often tied to beds for periods of up to 24 hours.” Troublemakers get haloperidol injections, which causes spinal pain and muscle spasms, torture and beatings are routine and are often responses to a request for medical assistance. The use of methadone, a common treatment for heroin addiction as well as other opioids, is illegal.

These are not only human rights violations, but signs that we are putting our energies in the wrong place when it comes to ending drug trafficking. A drug user is not the same as a dealer, the head of a cartel, or a drug lord. Many drug users are casual ones, while others seek escapism from their lives. They are not necessarily dangerous criminals, and even if they were, human rights violations would still be unethical.

Cardoso and Dreifuss make a great point in discussing how drug users are marginalized. In the general collective consciousness, a druggie is a faceless, dangerous social pariah, not a 20-something at a club who’s snorting cocaine that came out of oppression and violence thousands of miles away, but it’s okay because s/he has a jar of fair trade coffee waiting at home. A great deal of the violence in South America is because of drug wars. A chunk of the change that funds terrorist groups like Al Qaeda comes from drug trade. So why are users the ones bearing the brunt of this problem? Isn’t suffering the experience of addiction its own punishment?

I’m not saying I condone drugs, drug use, etc. But the purpose of laws is to maintain a functional society. So one would logically conclude that incarceration and punishment would be used as a tool to prevent drug trafficking more than simple use, the purpose being the protection of citizens in general. An addict may commit a crime in order to get money to fund his habit, but the punishable act there is stealing a neighbor’s TV, not the addiction itself. Someone smoking a joint at a party probably won’t hurt the people around them, though they might offer to share and then eat all the food in the pantry.

A drug dealer, however, is more likely to be involved in violent crimes. The head of a drug cartel and a druglord are guaranteed to. The systemic problems of illegal drugs won’t be addressed by arresting everyone at a Phish show, but by dismantling the systems that get hard drugs to people and literally mow down all persons in their path to doing so. The money and stakes involved are too high to avoid violence and oppression.

Interestingly enough, drug use in itself is an indicator of social status, and is also used as a tool for marginalization. Upper middle class kids are all about coke, you won’t find crack anywhere near them — that’s for people who can’t afford real cocaine. The amount of young black men who are in jail for marijuana possession is insanely disproportionate to the number of men in prison for rape — or even young white men for the same crime.

To be fair, there is a trickle-down effect when it comes to law enforcement and drugs: local police are responsible for dealing with stoned college kids and back-alley deals, while cartels and druglords are FBI territory. But the New York Times op-ed brings up some worthwhile points to think about. For one, the U.N. Human Rights Council should be condemning abuse of drug users worldwide, because addicts or not, torture and force are still unethical. For two, focusing energies purely on drug users instead of the source itself won’t solve the problem.

Image via Shutterstock

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