By Alvaro Piaggio and Prachi Vidwans

The “war on drugs” was first declared by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971, with the goal of eradicating what he viewed as the growing problem of drug addiction. Since then, it has had dire consequences, including the exacerbation of human rights violations and erosion of democratic institutions around the world. Yet human rights groups largely refrain from discussing drug policy.

Hundreds of civil society groups around the world are dedicated to investigating the outcomes of the drug war and advocating drug policy reform based on their findings. However, drug reform advocates often comment that international human rights organizations have been largely absent in these discussions. Human rights reports generally stick to noting human rights violations in affected states as a whole, without investigating the violations’ relation to drug policy and drug trafficking organizations.

Knowing this, the Human Rights Foundation initiated its War on Drugs Research Project to examine data and existing research on the global drug war’s costs and consequences in order to understand drug policy from a human rights perspective. The resulting report is organized in two parts. The first offers a high-level introduction to the drug war’s history and economics. It explains how prohibition was established, how the resulting black market functions, and how its policies have ultimately failed to decrease drug abuse.

Once we have established whether prohibition policies have created the desired outcomes, we look at the negative consequences of the policy — the human rights consequences — through three case studies: Colombia, Mexico, and the United States. These countries were selected because of their positions along the illegal drug supply chain. Colombia is a production country on the cocaine supply chain because of its position in the Andes mountain range, where coca, the plant used to manufacture cocaine, grows. Mexico is a transit country that traffickers pass through on their way to the drugs’ final stop: the United States, a destination country. Drug prohibition has taken different forms in each country because of their position on the supply chain. By examining each country, we hope to understand how different prohibition policies shape human rights outcomes.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. HRF’s focus shapes the scope of this report. The organization focuses on civil and political rights: the rights to free expression, belief, assembly, association, press; to liberty and security of the person; to access information; to political participation and to vote; and, of course, to life, among others. As many of these rights constitute the definition of liberal democracy, HRF research pays special attention to the political systems of countries in which human rights violations take place. In this report, this means that we have taken special care to understand how the drug war interacts with and affects a country’s democratic health. Colombia, Mexico, and the United States are all categorized as democratic countries under HRF’s Political Regime Research Project,i which categorizes all countries in the world into regime types using a methodology adapted from the one presented in Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way in Competitive Authoritarianism.

It is well established that prohibition has failed to reduce consumption and abuse. But prohibition is not just ineffective; it’s harmful. This report shows how prohibition’s policies have directly caused severe human rights violations in affected countries, especially by undermining civil and political rights to such a degree that these policies constitute a threat to democracy. Supply-centric policies have had grave consequences for individuals, communities, and the health of democratic institutions, including high rates of violence, disappearances, kidnappings, and incarceration; impacts on local communities and minority populations; state instability, lack of trust  in government, and corruption; and a deterioration of rule of law and electoral competition. The report’s findings suggest that, from a human rights perspective, there must be a shift from international drug policies that focus on criminalization and supply reduction, to ones that have human rights and health at their core.