Thursday, September 12, 2013

The world's most draconian drug policies

The last few weeks have been marked by several positive developments in drug policy around the world.
  • The Uruguayan Parliament passed a groundbreaking bill that, subject to Senate approval later this year, will make Uruguay the first country in the world to legally regulate the production and sale of cannabis under government monopoly. 
  • In the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder announced changes in the Justice Department’s sentencing policy so that certain low-level, non-violent drug offenders; "will no longer be charged with offences that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences."
  • The US Federal Government also indicated it will allow individual states to proceed with marijuana legalization, as long as they ensure production and supply are well regulated, including restricting access to minors, and preventing excess production being sold into states that have not legalized.
These important advancements come at a time when the heavy-handed tactics of the war on drugs are being increasingly questioned. Nevertheless, for many governments the punitive war on drugs approach continues to be used to justify a wide range of distressing and unacceptable acts that directly breach their international human rights obligations. From the use of the death penalty for drug offences, to compulsory drug detention centres, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings, the state of drug policies is, in many countries, draconian to say the least. 

Below is a selection of the most oppressive practices around the world. They highlight the urgent need for a global shift away from criminal justice-led drug policies towards those centred around health that support rather than punish. They also underline that this shift needs to happen not just for marijuana, but for all drugs.

1. China

Official numbers regarding death sentences and executions performed in China are a state secret, and so not readily available. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that China performs more executions than the rest of the world put together. 

Moreover, the conviction rate is nearly 100%, so if someone is accused of a crime that is punishable by the death penalty, they are almost certain to receive that sentence. According to Amnesty International, defendants often face trials where the court has already decided a verdict and possibly a sentence, a practice that could explain why many people are sentenced to death after trials lasting less than an hour.

Although in 2011 China removed 13 mostly economic crimes from the list for which the death penalty can be handed down, but drug offences such as trafficking remain on the list.

The “treatment” of suspected drug users in China also presents a grim picture. In theory, the country's Anti-Drug Law of June 2008 ended the programme of sentencing alleged drug users to Re-Education Through Labour. In reality though, it effectively expanded the previous 6-12 months sentence to a minimum of 2 and sometimes 3 years in drug detention centres instead. The law also allows for a period of up to four years of unspecified “community based rehabilitation”, in practice allowing for up to 7 years of incarceration. The detainees are routinely beaten, forced  to work up to 18 hours a day without pay and denied medical or drug dependency treatment. Detention takes place without trial and the Anti-Drug Law gives the police rather than medical professionals the power to determine the “addiction” and need for detention without any legal process or even evidence of current drug use. A 2009 UNAIDS report estimates that at any given time approximately 500,000 people are undergoing drug detention in China.

2. Iran

The 2011 Amendments to the Anti-Narcotic Law of the Islamic Republic of Iran introduces; “the death penalty for trafficking or possessing more than 30 grams of specified synthetic, non-medical psychotropic drugs, and for recruiting or hiring people to commit any of the crimes under the law, or organising, running, financially supporting, or investing in such activities, in cases where the crime is punishable with life imprisonment”.

In 2011 80% of the 676 executions performed in Iran were of drug offenders. Only 9% of people executed for drug charges were fully identified. The soaring number of arrests for drug trafficking in recent years is in part due to international assistance to halt the flow of drugs from Afghanistan, but also because the drug laws are used to sentence political opponents of the regime. Public executions also seem to be on the rise with a four-fold increase between 2010 and 2011. 
Drug traffickers usually come from the most disadvantaged sectors of society, members of ethnic minorities and foreign nationals, mostly Afghans trying to escape poverty by working as drug mules. A lack of transparency makes getting hard numbers on those facing execution impossible to obtain, but comments by Iranian officials suggest  there may be 4,000 Afghans alone on death row for drug trafficking. According to Amnesty International; "Most - if not all - of those condemned to death for drugs offences have faced grossly unfair trials", or have never even seen the inside of a court at all. 

Although Iran, having a serious national drug problem, with more than 2 million users, has made some progress in decriminalising and providing some forms of treatment for drug users, the number of people on death row for drug trafficking offences remains staggering.

3. Viet Nam

Like in China, Vietnamese death penalty statistics are also considered a state secret. Yet reports state that in 2011 69 people were sentenced to death, 27 of them for drug smuggling. Just five executions have been officially reported.

Viet Nam also has a wide and expanding network of compulsory drug detention centres that in practice have nothing to do with treatment and constitute forced labour camps. Refusal to work, violating rules or not meeting quotas results in punishment that often amounts to torture.  
In 2000 there were 56 centres across the country, a number that increased to 123 in 2011. It is estimated that over 390,000 people passed through those centres between 2000 and 2010.    

Along with this increase came an expansion of the length of detention, from a minimum of three months to one year as of 2000, to four years of supposed drug treatment according to the provisions of a law passed by the National Assembly in 2009. The detention centres stem from a tradition of “re-education through labor” camps for drug users and sex workers established after 1975, and formed part of the governmental campaign to eradicate “social evils” including drug use that gained momentum in the mid-1990s. 

In detention “treatment” involves working six days a week processing cashews, sewing garments, manufacturing garments and other items and working in construction. Both unpaid work, and work for a fraction of the Vietnamese minimal wage is common. What is more, the centres often deduct food, lodging and “managerial fees” from the pay, and upon release people sometimes find themselves indebted to the centres. The law also states that children aged 12-18 who are addicted to drugs can be detained in the centres for up to two years and are also required to work. Legal regulations require that all drug addicts must report their dependency to the local authorities or their workplace, and register for obligatory “detoxification”. Families are also required to report their relatives for drug addiction to the authorities. The vast majority of detainees are heroin users.    

4. Cambodia and Laos

Compulsory drug detention centres are also prevalent in neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. The Government of the Lao People’s Republic declared that it aims to make the country “drug free” by 2015. Achieving this goal includes village militias detaining drug users, and family members being encouraged to report each others drug use.

In both countries these centres have very little to do with treatment, and are often used as dumping grounds for individuals deemed as “undesirable”. People locked up include drug users (casual, past or in genuine need of treatment), the homeless, beggars, street children, sex workers and people with mental disabilities or illness. In both countries the majority of detained users use amphetamine type stimulants, with some addicted to heroin. The vast majority are sent to the centres by the authorities, with large numbers detained at the request of their families, who are often required to pay for “treatment”. 

In 2011 in Laos Human Rights Watch reports mention at least eight drug detention centres throughout the country, with the biggest one - Somsanga located in the capital Vientiane.

According to data from 2010 Cambodia has 11 centres, and in 2008 about 25% of detainees were under 18. Abuse in detention reported by former detainees included beatings, torture, being shocked with electrical batons, rapes, whipping with twisted electrical wire, being coerced into giving blood, and forced labour, often directly benefiting the centre staff.

5. Thailand

This video gives a powerful account of the  struggle of Thai drug user activists and  the 2003  war on drugs launched by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, that entailed almost 3000 extra judicial killings. In 2007 an official investigation found that over 50% of the victims had no connection to drugs whatsoever.

Since 2003, thousands of people in Thailand have been forced into drug “treatment” detention centres run by security forces, where human rights abuses are rife.

6. Saudi Arabia

As the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty for Drug Offences report states, in the first six months of 2012 there were at least 45 executions in Saudi Arabia, at least 16 of them for drug offences including a minimum of 3 for cannabis. It is known that foreigners, a lot of them from Pakistan, are disproportionately sentenced to death.

7. Singapore and Malaysia

Executions for drug offences still take place in Singapore and Malaysia, although these countries have lately seen a push to reconsider the mandatory death sentence for drug trafficking. Nevertheless, 2 people were executed for drug offences in Singapore in 2011 and in Malaysia in the same year 83 people (including 22 foreigners) were given a death sentence for drug offences although no executions were carried out.

8. Russia

There are an estimated 1.8 million injecting drug users in Russia - one of the highest levels in the world. About a decade ago 100,000 people in Russia were HIV positive, by 2012 that number had jumped to over 1 million. Russia is at the epicentre of the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world - yet the response of its authorities includes restricting precisely the kind of harm reduction measures that have been proven to work all over the globe including needle exchange programs, and opposition to the use of methadone and buprenorphine as well as attacks on NGOs providing crucial assistance to drug users, such as the Andrey Rylkov Foundation.

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