By Luciana Pol, CELS

Around the world, attempts at controlling the use and sale of drugs through criminal sanctions have resulted in extreme levels of incarceration for drug-related offences, serious overcrowding in prisons, deterioration of prison conditions, increased violence inside and outside prison, and depleted resources available for rehabilitation, education or treatment. In Latin America, for example, nearly a third of all detainees are in prison for drug-related offences. However, is the tide turning?

Prison in Argentina. Source: Penal Reform International website

In this last of our expert guest blogs for our anniversary year, Luciana Pol, Senior Fellow on Security and Human Rights at Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) in Argentina welcomes initiatives in several Latin American countries to start to recalibrate the criminal justice response to drugs and welcomes the inclusion of human rights perspectives into next year’s Special Session of the UN General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) in April 2016.

The so-called “War on Drugs” waged over the last four decades has had a tremendous impact on security operations and judicial and prison systems in Latin America – to the point where nearly one-third of all detainees are incarcerated for non-violent drug-related crimes. The emphasis on drug control through criminal sanctions and police and military action to combat drug trafficking has ravaged many communities, some of which experience levels of violence equivalent to a civil war with tens of thousands of lives lost in recent years. But the ever-increasing involvement of security forces and armed forces has not achieved the goal of these policies, which is 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.

Human rights organisations in Latin America have identified many serious impacts on people’s rights stemming from the “War on Drugs”. The fact that so many people are being incarcerated for non-violent drug-related crimes further overpopulates prisons in the region. This situation often leads to a number of related problems: the degradation of detention conditions, increased violence inside penitentiaries, even more limited access to education and proper medical attention, and so on.

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