Trends in Organized Crime

, Volume 13, Issue 1, pp 60–74

Narcophobia: drugs prohibition and the generation of human rights abuses


  • Fernanda Mena
    • Centre for Human Rights, Department of SociologyLondon School of Economics
    • Department of SociologyLondon School of Economics

DOI: 10.1007/s12117-009-9087-8

Cite this article as:
Mena, F. & Hobbs, D. Trends Organ Crim (2010) 13: 60. doi:10.1007/s12117-009-9087-8


This paper is concerned with the negative aspects of global drugs prohibition. The paper argues that prohibition, which is driven by moralism rather than empirical research, creates a black market that is regulated by violent entrepreneurs, and particular in developing countries where there is a lack of economic opportunities for the poor, offers the only feasible employment options. The paper suggests that the results of experimental legislation should be taken seriously. The militarisation of prohibition enforcement has hindered the advancement of democracy and led to violence and increases in human rights abuses. In conclusion it is argued that the current system of global prohibition creates more problems than it solves, and that issues of drug production and trade need to be dealt with by regulation from within a development perspective.

Introduction: an old/new debate

In 1909 the first international effort to ban the drugs trade took place in Shanghai, creating a system of drug control based on prohibition, and establishing worldwide a principle bound by international law to forbid drugs production, trade, and consumption. Although the aspiration to eliminate both supply and demand is contentious, it has been reiterated by the United Nations periodic reviews of international drug policy, in spite of the negative outcomes that are highlighted both by scholars (Friedman 1989; Nadelmann 1990; Levine 2003; Miron 2004; Bancroft 2009; Barrett and Nowak 2009) and civil society (Transnational Institute 2008; Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy 2009).

The prohibitionists’ main claim is that criminalization deters drug use, and therefore reduces harm to health, which would exponentially increase under legalization. However, once we cut through the liberal façade, authors such as Wilson and Bennett ultimately argue that fundamentally “drugs use is wrong” (Bennett 1991: 339), and that drugs “illegality rests in part on their immorality” (Wilson 1990: 26). Conversely, we argue that drug prohibition harms society in several ways, in particular creating a black market that has little concern for human rights, as participants do not have access to the legal and judicial system in order to resolve disputes, and as a consequence seek other methods of reaching a resolution, in particular violence (Miron 2004: 12; Hobbs forthcoming).

In addition, “illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault” (Friedman 1989: 2). However, the status quo argument denies direct connection between prohibition and the advent of organized crime, a form of “interpretative denial” (Cohen 2001), in which the abuse of human rights is acknowledged but not its exact causes. The orthodoxy of the drugs debate hides the problems caused by the prohibition of illicit drugs, distorting the damage that it causes often to the most vulnerable in society. “At worst, it actually contributes to the generation of harm” (Bancroft 2009: 72).

The first section of this paper will draw on a review of drug policy developments, from free trade to bans, focusing on its relation to commercial interests, and suggesting that moral discourses have been key in raising support for the “war on drugs”. Secondly, we will examine UN drug treaties currently in force and interrogate the harms that they generate by imposing burdensome goals on governments without assuring human rights accountability. We will then look into Portuguese drug decriminalization, since 2001, and finally we will analyse the case of Brazil, demonstrating that prohibitions pernicious outcomes are worsened by features common to new democracies.

We then conclude that drug prohibition is increasingly costly, harmful to health and welfare, and counterproductive for the establishment of an international order that aims for development, security and the protection of human rights.

From commodities to evildoers

Historically drugs have comprised an important commodity for global trade, and were an important source of revenue for governments with overseas empires; for instance the Dutch, English and Portuguese trafficked opium in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Mcallister 2000: 10). The first step towards prohibition emanated from a change in the way that drugs were perceived, and the shift from economic liberalism, based on the free market, to a prohibitionist stance, based on images of moral degeneration and deviance, laid the groundwork for contemporary prohibitionism.

By 1900 the idea of “instituting controls reinforced the authority of the medical profession, government agencies and moral entrepreneurs” (Mcallister 2000: 17-18), and the drugs debate combined apparently paradoxical approaches: physicians’ unionising efforts, governments’ commercial interests and churches’ moral pleas concerning obstacles to new conversions (Ibid: 14). The role of religious movements in the anti-drugs crusade was crucial. Taylor described the international campaign for drugs prohibition as “missionary diplomacy” (1969: 29), and in Britain various Church groups, in particular the Quakers, founded anti-opium societies, and gathered Parliamentary allies to their cause (Nadelmann 1990: 503). In the US, Episcopal bishop Charles Henry Brent became an international leader of the anti-drugs movement. A former missionary in the Far East, Brent released a report in 1904 in which he argued for total prohibition of opium, based on his observations of the natives’ moral degeneration (Musto 1987: 28).

The notion of opium as an “evil” was also emphasized both by the Chinese and the North American governments. The former needed a scapegoat to heighten nationalism and sovereignty (Dikotter 2003: 2), and while the latter had no significant interest in the opium trade, the burgeoning Chinese market held an allure for the American government that was sufficient for them to curry favour with the Chinese government (Mcallister 2000: 27–30). The ultimate motor for narcotic controls was, therefore, the product of the combined endeavours of moral entrepreneurs, nationalist politicians and the economic aspirations of the US.1

Bishop Brent was the chairman of the first international meeting aiming to regulate the opium trade, the Shanghai Opium Commission of 1909, which took place just a few decades after the last of Britain's Opium Wars (1856–1860) against China, the purpose of which was to assure the import of opium to China (Hanes and Sanello 2003). One of the Shanghai Commission’s recommendations was that opium could not be exported to nations which prohibited it by domestic legislation. After the Shanghai meeting, however, opium was still entering China, mostly through Portuguese traders, and the US presented a supply oriented vision of international drug control through measures such as limiting cultivation, controlling manufacturing and distribution, equalizing national controls and instituting reciprocal rights to search suspected vessels (Taylor 1969: 83-4).

Various states responded by requesting amendments. Italy wanted marijuana and hashish to be included in the draft, and Portugal asserted that it would not change its opium trade policy unless all other governments involved in the business agreed to do so. France opposed the requirement of domestic legislation review, and Britain insisted that the treaty must include manufactured drugs such as morphine, heroin and cocaine. Germany, the main exporter of manufactured drugs, objected to this proposition, while Turkey, a major player in the opium trade, simply refused to attend the meeting (Mcallister 2000: 31-32). The next step in the history of global anti-drugs efforts took place via the Hague Opium Conferences (1912–1914), which established the first international drug control treaty. Forty-four countries signed the Convention but just a few ratified it (Willoughby 1976).

After the First World War, the League of Nations became a central forum for transnational affairs, and as this global arena was occupied by representatives of states, the role of moral entrepreneurs, such as the Church, became less obvious. The League’s covenant explicitly mentioned the control of “dangerous drugs” as an objective, and the Hague Opium Convention was included in the peace agreements of the Treaty of Versailles (Levine 2003: 146). However, the lack of support from the US, which never took part in the League, weakened considerably initiatives attempting to create a permanent system of global drug control.

The advent of the United Nations in 1945, and the establishment of drug control as one of its priorities, paved the way for the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which was ratified by 98% of the world’s nations. Combined with the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, it created the current system of drugs prohibition (Chatterjee 1981). It had taken over half a century of international meetings, intense diplomatic leverage and insistent demonization discourses for anti-drugs actors to achieve consensus on global drug prohibition.

The 1961 Convention focused on plant-based drugs such as opium, heroin, coca, cocaine and cannabis, limiting its production, trade and use exclusively to medical and scientific purposes. It also created the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which monitors the implementation of UN Conventions on drugs, “operating like a World Trade Organisation in reverse”, ensuring that signatories may not permit narcotic drugs to be produced, traded or sold (Bancroft 2009: 117).

Ten years later, the 1971 Convention was settled as a result of growing concerns over synthetic drugs (amphetamines, barbiturates and LSD), and in 1988 another convention tackled drug trafficking, introducing the requirement that each signatory to the Convention make the possession of drugs for personal consumption a criminal offense under domestic law (Bewley-Taylor 2003: 173). In 1998 a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs released a Political Declaration2 which reiterated the UN previous commitment to a “drug free world” by 2008.

The politics of fear: aliens and anti-drugs discourses

Until the late nineteenth century, substances like cocaine, cannabis or heroin, were not placed under one single category of “drugs” and, according to Bancroft, the mere categorization of “drug” is a function of power, “inebriety becomes deviance, anti-social, an addiction, requiring surveillance and possible coercive intervention” (2009: 17–20). This “politics of fear”, launched at the end of the 19th century in order to tackle trade and consumption of substances capable of altering states of consciousness, marks a diversion from a commercial to a moral discourse, and was marked by the way that drugs were defined, labelled, stigmatized and, therefore, controlled (Best 1989).

In 1902, the main British argument in defence of the opium trade was that “if we did not supply the Chinese with opium, they would supply themselves with it, and that if someone was to supply them, we should have the profit of doing so” (The Times 1902: 5). Just 20 years later, drug traders, were presented as “purveyors of debauchery” (The Times 1922: 13) and “enemies of society” (The Times 1922: 19). From 1851 to 1900 (not inclusive), there was only one piece of news published by “The Times” that combined the terms “drug” and “evil”. Between 1900 and 1940, when the first international anti-drugs agreements came into force, the occurrence of this association increased to thirteen citations. Between 1940 and 1985, they decreased to nine news pieces. And, finally, between 1985 and 2009, 1,504 articles mentioned “drug” and “evil” side by side (Mena 2009).

This strategy of stigmatization and control was also applied to the increasing immigration of Chinese labourers entering the US by the early twentieth century, and their association with opium created the illusion of indigenous virtue and outsider “evil”, legitimising the government’s agency against “threat” (Silverstone 2006: 57-58). The American Pharmaceutical Association (APhA) and its Committee on the Acquirement of the Drug Habit, that was active between 1898 and 1902, reinforced the stereotyping of the Chinese by writing that, “if the Chinaman cannot get along without his ‘dope’, we can get along without him” (Reinarman 1979; Musto 1987). The demonisation of the Chinese culminated with the USA’s permanent exclusion of Chinese labourers from the US in 1902 (Musto 1987:30).

The emergent popularity of cocaine in the 1900s enabled this process of othering to be extended to the already oppressed black American population. Newspapers published by the New York Times in 1914 asserted that cocaine caused “negroes” to commit “violent crimes”, and made them more resistant to police bullets (The New York Times, 8/2/1914). The stigmatization of blacks through drugs sustained racist policies and violent remedies, “the fear of the cocainized black coincided with the peak of lynching, legal segregation and voting laws all designed to remove political and social power from him” (Musto 1987: 7). The articulation of moral judgements of “good” and “evil” applied towards certain ethnic groups defined “agendas of public culture” (Silverstone 2006: 57), creating not only support but actual demands for punitive action.

After the Second World War, international conspiracies were frequent in the Western world, and the head of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), Harry J. Anslinger, was not only responsible for drug-enforcement policies, but was also involved in the US post-war foreign policy, and in the 1950s, Anslinger provided journalists with conspiratorial stories claiming that the People’s Republic of China provided drugs to the US in order to fund a future war, while simultaneously weakening the “health and moral fibre of its enemies” (Woodiwiss 1993: 3). In sum, the association of drugs with notions of “evil” that labelled Chinese, black Americans and communism, constitutes an exercise of power that culminates in the constitution of a moral and political ideology —a framed version of reality that established barriers to full interaction and understanding, underpinning social exclusion and legitimising hostility and violence (Picketing 2001: 48-49).

Declaration of war

In 1971, President Nixon identified drugs as the US “public enemy number 1” and declared a “war on drugs”, proclaiming that “every son and daughter” in the US was “at risk” because of drugs (Woodiwiss 1988: 221-2). The invocation of the American family unit alongside a “war” was appealing to the media, and articulated discourses that created an “infrastructure in the engineering of consent to the war on drugs” (Elwood 1994: 11-12).

The Reagan Presidency that commenced in 1981 saw First Lady Nancy Reagan create pressure for international prohibition at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in 1988, in particular by offering support for the treaty that would become the Vienna Convention against Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (National First Ladies Library 2008; Woodiwiss and Hobbs 2009). President Reagan also used metaphors of war in his anti-drug speeches, contributing to a moral panic (Hawdon 2001: 419–445) that demanded action based on an eight-point plan aiming to “cripple organized crime” (Woodiwiss 1988: 200), expanding the anti-drug budget, and shifting responsibility for drug enforcement from the DEA to the FBI.

In 1987 the United Nations announced a new international treaty against drug trafficking, and in 1988 a G-7 task force flagged up international action against money laundering to confiscate drug profits. In December of the same year, the G-7 countries incorporated these proposals into the 1988 U.N. Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Friman 1991: 880-2; Woodiwiss and Bewley-Taylor 2005: 17–21). By 2005, 173 countries had signed up to the convention (Bewley-Taylor 1999: 171-4).

For geographic reasons as well as for being the main producer of coca leaves, Latin America was at the forefront of the US “war on drugs”. In 1989, “Operation Just Cause” marked the invasion of Panama by US troops to depose General Manuel Noriega, citing his alleged links to drug trafficking. In Bolivia, security forces were trained by the US, and human rights groups reported summary executions of coca farmers and unlawful detentions (Ledebur 2005, p. 144). In 1998, a forced-eradication operation named “Plan Dignidad” (Plan Dignity), that aimed to eliminate “illicit” crops within 5 years, turned into a series of confrontations between “cocaleros” (coca farmers) and Bolivian military and police forces, during which Evo Morales emerged as a leader, before being elected president in 2005.

In the early 2000s, “Plan Colombia” inaugurated a US$ 1.3 billion military aid package, although Colombia’s long and complex guerrilla warfare, and the army’s poor record on human rights (Sweig 2002: 130) posed an additional threat to the success of the initiative. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2008, today Colombia has a similar amount of internally displaced people (IDPs) to Iraq, and more than 374,000 refugees.

The militarization of anti-drugs efforts was spawned by the US throughout the region exactly when Latin America was undergoing a “third wave of democratization” (Huntington 1991) that attempted to overcome decades of military coups and dictatorships, and strengthening the military presented a setback to fragile democracies, their institutions and accountability processes (Youngers and Rosin 2005: 343). Moreover, crop eradication and substitution programmes tended to be effective in the short-term, but worthless and harmful in the long run. Worthless because substitutive crops proved to be less profitable, pulling peasant farmers back to coca plantations afterwards. Harmful because many eradication strategies involved the spray of toxic herbicides, causing birth defects, diseases and environmental damage (del Olmo 1987, cited in Johns 1992: 52). The long-term effects on the environment is particularly serious because the “poorest segment of the population is totally dependent on the land” (Johns 1992: 54).

An additional “war on drugs” strategy was to “certify” countries for cooperation in US anti-drugs efforts, and those who failed to meet US standards faced economic sanctions, such as a withdrawal of aid or trade benefits (Bullington 1993: 49; Youngers and Rosin 2005: 22). However, it must be stressed that although the US “war on drugs” presented an extra pressure on Latin America drug policies, its goals coincided with those established by the UN drug conventions.

UN drug policies: inconsistency and human rights

This paper has elucidated the series of stigmatizations supporting the advent and advance of a prohibitionist system of drug control, its enforcement practices and some pernicious consequences. Yet it is necessary to illuminate how those outcomes are intertwined with the neglect of human rights principles within UN drug policies (Bewley-Taylor 2005: 423). The UN Charter, the foundational document of the UN, has supremacy over other treaties (UNODC 2008: 218). Its article 1 states in paragraph 1 that the purpose of the UN is to “take effective collective measures…for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of peace”. Paragraph 3 in the same article, states that the UN must promote and encourage “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction”. Following this reasoning, UN bodies should have “suppression of acts of aggression” and “respect for human rights” as overarching principles. Moreover, the primacy of human rights was enshrined in another foundational UN document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). However, as detailed above, the prohibitionism that is at the core of international law on drugs sustains a black market and a whole network of illegality and crime, inspiring progressively abrasive enforcement strategies and social exclusion. This cause-effect link was noted by the UNODC (2009) as the “unintended effects of drug control” in the preamble of the World Drug Report 2009, and a previous UN report, “making drug control ‘fit for purpose’”, has enumerated five “unintended” and “unexpected” consequences of drug control.

First, it acknowledged the rise of “a huge criminal black market” as a drug prohibition outcome. Secondly, a “policy displacement”, in which resources are withdrawn from areas such as public health in favour of public security. Thirdly, “geographical displacement” pushes drugs production away from places with harsher enforcement. The fourth consequence was “substance displacement”, as both users and suppliers move from controlled substances to others that are subjected to flawed or weak control, although they may be more harmful (as in the case of crack-cocaine or crystal meth). Finally, it recognizes the marginalization and social exclusion suffered by drugs users (UNODC 2008: 10-11).

The UN’s acknowledgment of the consequences of drug prohibition suggests that international drug policies have been undertaken with little regard to their potential consequences, and with lack of accountability. It could be argued that those “unintended and unexpected” consequences entail breaches of fundamental human rights (namely articles 3, 5, 13 paragraph 1, and article 28). Death (art.3), torture (art.5) and displacement forced by guerrilla warfare (art. 13 paragraph 1) all seem to be generated, in one way or another, by the black market nature of current global and local drug flows. Therefore, it can be contended that the present drugs control system exacerbates conditions for a “social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth” in the UDHR cannot be “fully realized” (art. 28).

Chinkin (1998) articulates the unevenness between international and human rights law when arguing that, “effective human rights law must be fully integrated into the substance and procedures of other branches of international law, both for determining the causes of human rights violations and for ensuring that they are taken into account in the decision making of all types. This is not currently the case” (Chinkin 1998: 117). At the drugs treaties level, international drug policies have been developed and interpreted “in a vacuum from human rights law, with little reference to human rights norms, and little regard for their own human rights obligations” (Barrett and Nowak 2009: 451). Barrett and Nowak provide myriad examples of such inconsistencies, for instance the use of virulent herbicides in crop eradication policies, beatings and death threats in order to obtain information and confessions from drug suspects in Indonesia (Nowak 2008), and the death penalty for drug offences still being retained by over thirty countries. Ostensive police raids into poor communities, often involving reckless shootings and the execution of alleged criminals, are also mentioned by the authors. In Rio de Janeiro, the Security Secretary stated that violent conflicts were a “bitter pill” that slum residents would have to swallow if they wished to get rid of drug gangs in their communities (see Phillips 2007). Because drug policy success is measured in terms of tons of drugs seized, and number of drug offenders imprisoned, “there is no human rights scrutiny of processes” and “nothing in the way of human rights outcome evaluation for drug control projects” (Barrett and Nowak 2009: 471). While it is important to emphasize that UN agencies do not endorse poisonous spraying, torture, the death penalty or the deliberate use of violence to achieve its drug related goals, it is extremely relevant to bring those consequences to the centre of the drugs debate: are they intrinsic to a prohibitionist regime? How to minimize those harms?

Certain goals such as “eradicating” cultivation, and eliminating “the root causes” of drugs abuse —apart from contention in terms of feasibility per se— were determined by the 1988 Convention to be achieved through “appropriate measures” at the domestic level, and it is the responsibility of individual states to choose how to achieve them. Can the UN be held accountable for the repercussion of its policies inside a sovereign state border? Some scholars and organizations argue that it can. They point to “UN complicity in those violations”, an approach made possible after the Officer of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted in 2004 that an organisation may be complicit in violations of human rights if it “tolerates, or knowingly ignores” abuses (Beckley Foundation 2008: 6, Barrett and Nowak 2009: 474). After Kofi Annan ascertained that human rights are one of the pillars of the UN (Annan 2005), it seems clear that international drug policy is at odds with this provision.

Civil society: claims for a pragmatic approach

At the end of June 2009, a group of fourteen international organizations, including the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy—co-chaired by former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, released a call to action named “Support Global Drug Policy Reform”. The document stated that the “war on drugs” has become a war on people, and proposed actions based on the “given overwhelming evidence” that criminalizing drugs is “both counterproductive and highly destructive” (Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy 2009).

The Commission also stated that “violence and the organized crime associated with the narcotics trade are critical problems in Latin America today” (Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy 2009: 5), and pushed for an “urgent” in-depth revision of current drug policies “in the light of their enormous human and social costs and threats to democratic institutions” (ibid, 2009: 5).

The report states that over the past decade, Latin America has witnessed “a rise in organized crime caused both by the international narcotics trade and the growing control exercised by criminal groups over domestic markets and territories; a growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence affecting the whole of society and, in particular, the poor and the young”; the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime, as well as the proliferation of linkages between them, as reflected in the infiltration of democratic institutions by organized crimes” and “the corruption of public servants, the judicial system, governments, the political system and especially the police forces in charge of enforcing law and order” (Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy 2009: 5)

The Commission states that prohibition has been disastrous, and indicates that human rights violations have particularly harmed vulnerable populations in the region, especially peasant farmers and poor communities living in areas controlled by drug trafficking organizations. The document proposes a new paradigm in drugs policy which would involve a change of status for drug addicts from criminals to patients in the public health system, an evaluation of the decriminalization of cannabis for personal use, and a redirection of resources to “fighting the most harmful effects of organized crime on society such as violence, institutional corruption, money laundering, arms trafficking and the control over territories and populations” (Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy 2009: 10)—the exact features which are central to the prohibitionist regime on drugs.

The effects of decriminalization: Portugal

The Dutch experience on drugs policy has until recently been the best source of evidence on alternative approaches to orthodox prohibition based drug policy. In the Netherlands the purchase, possession and consumption of cannabis, although still a crime, is de facto decriminalized (Cohen et al. 2004: 836). Cohen et al. compared cannabis usage rates in Amsterdam to those in San Francisco where drug use remains criminalised, and found that drug usage in the North American city was higher than in the Dutch capital, therefore suggesting that there was no evidence that criminalization deters use (Ibid: 838–841).

However, Portugal has emerged as a more complete case study as it is the first European Union country to have decriminalized the purchase, possession and consumption for personal use (defined as an average quantity for 10 days of use) of all drugs, although drug trafficking remains criminalized. The Portuguese policy was implemented in 2001 in the light of a deteriorating drug problem in the 1990s, especially with regard to heroin. In his investigation into the Portuguese case, Greenwald (2009) states that the political impetus for decriminalization was driven by the perception that the principal obstacles to effective policies to manage drug problems were the treatment barriers and resource drain imposed by the criminalization regime. Greenwald acknowledges that decriminalization “has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal, which, in numerous categories, are now among the lowest in the EU” (Greenwald 2009: 12). Particularly when compared with states that have stringent criminalization regimes, usage decreased among teenagers and mildly increased among young adults. The number of newly reported cases of HIV/AIDS among drug users also decreased significantly, along with drug-related mortality, and decriminalization freed up resources that were channelled into treatment and other harm reduction programs (Ibid).

Brazil: poverty, violence and human rights

Brazil is not a main producer of opium or cocaine, but it does take part in the global drug market as a cannabis producer, and it shares borders with the three main cocaine producers: Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. As a result, 15% of South America's cocaine exports pass through Brazil. Crucially, Brazil has developed as a major consumer market for all drugs.3

Brazil has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world, with around 34% of its population under the poverty line.4 This is relevant to the drug trade as “it configures a perverse social and economic integration for those who suffer exclusion… poor people work perilously at the retail trade in order to assure enormous profits at superior nodes” (Zaluar 2001: 370). In rural areas, cannabis is cultivated in plantations, and according to the Labour Prosecution Office of Pernambuco region (the main cannabis producing area in Brazil), there are around 40,000 marijuana workers, and among them 10,000 are estimated to be young people, and “many are forced to work by criminal gangs” (Iulianelli 2004: 9–11).

In the urban centres of major cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro this situation is far more complex. Drug gangs dominate entire territories; the most vulnerable of these are favelas (shanty towns), which lack state presence and basic services. A study conducted in Rio followed 230 young people working for drug traffic ‘organizations’, and concluded that economic motivation was the main push factor for them to be involved in the drug trade, an involvement that is enforced via coercion and violent practices sustained by the widespread possession of military standard weaponry: rifles, machine guns and grenades (Favela Watch 2006; see also Phillips 2009).

As mentioned above, in black markets violence is often used because the justice and legal systems are not viable resources for solving drug related business conflicts, and drug gangs tend to use their arsenal to “threaten possible competitors, violently coerce debtors, make fragile agreements with the policemen who extort them, and intimidate witnesses” (Zaluar 2001: 375). As a result, the drug business is embedded in violent practices, such as coercion, torture and executions. The general homicide rate in Europe is 1.2 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, while in Brazil it is 26.1. In the population of 15 to 24 years old, the European homicide rate is still 1.2, while the Brazilian rate increases to 51.6 (Waisenlfisz 2008). In Rio the homicide rate rises to 104.4, and if we concentrate upon homicides among the population of Rio de Janeiro’s blacks and dark skinned (highly concentrated among favelas inhabitants), from 22 to 23 years old, the rate achieves a staggering 370 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (Ramos 2009: 3).

As Zaluar states (2001), one cannot look at the “tremendous” rates of homicide in Brazil without linking them to drug trafficking, and points to the fact that studies suggest that a high proportion of homicides are related to narcotraffic (Adorno 1990; Soares et al. 1996; Beato and Assunção 2000): an estimated 25% to 52% of the total. Calculating drug-related homicides on the basis of the minimum estimate (25%), Rio’s drug-related deaths would still be ahead of the terror inflicted by Uganda’s infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. Using the maximum rate of 52% this places Rio’s deaths above those generated by major conflicts in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Between 1991 and 1999, Sierra Leone’s civil war produced around 11,000 deaths among young people, while during the same period in Rio, 23,480 teenagers died due to firearm injuries; in the Uganda conflict, from 1994 to 1998, about 3,000 youngsters died, while in Rio 12,404 boys died from gunshots (Dowdney 2003: 114–116).

The Police also contribute significantly to these Brazilian death statistics via extrajudicial killings, especially in favelas dominated by drug gangs.5 According to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2009, “police are responsible for one out of every five intentional killings”. Not included in these figures are bystanders killed by stray bullets during police raids, during which “indiscriminate shootings” occur (HRW 2009: 160). According to another report from the Beckley Foundation (2008), in Brazil, “police are engaged in an increasingly violent and frequently lethal war on drugs” in which “children recruited into drug trafficking gangs are considered legitimate targets for armed police and are shot at without hesitation” (2008: 6-7).

Despite extensive reports on human rights violations during these police operations, the government still tends to support certain high-profile militarized police operations (AI 2008: 74). This data suggests that the “war on drugs” produces more casualties than in many “official” conflicts, and the violence that emanates from drugs prohibition also entails abuses of human rights in terms of life, torture and security.

Concerning Brazilian drug consumption deaths, although potentially under-reported, overdoses constitute a minor harm compared to deaths associated with drug-related violence. In 2007, 3,866 people were hospitalized due to drug abuse and 64 died of overdose (UNODC estimates drug abuse-related deaths are 200,000 per year worldwide). On the other hand, in Brazil 34,028 people were hospitalized due to intoxication from legal medication and 91 died.6

This might be because licit drug consumption in Brazil is much higher than illicit drug consumption, and the first six most consumed drugs are, respectively, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, solvents, tranquillizers and amphetamines (Brazilian Information Centre for Psychotropic Drugs 2005). This could be related to the phenomenon named by UNODC as “substance displacement” —a consequence of the policy of criminalizing the use of certain drugs, pushing users towards other substances that are subjected to less stringent controls.

Another important outcome of drugs prohibition is “policy displacement”. Because the police and the criminal justice system tend to focus on drug offenders rather than other criminals, nondrug-related crimes may be encouraged (Miron 2004: 12), and Adorno and Pazinato’s (2009) research in São Paulo suggests that drug related offences are far more vigorously investigated and punished than murders. Other types of “policy displacement”, however, might be especially harmful in developing countries, which already suffer a lack of resources to accomplish rights enshrined at the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESC 1966). According to the Ministry of Justice (2008), Brazil has a prison population of 440,013, a number that has increased fourfold in the last 12 years. Of these, 69,049 were arrested for national or international drug trafficking. As an example of the unbalanced prioritization entailed in “policy displacement”, it is interesting to look at very basic services for human dignity as sanitation, which relates to “adequate living standards” as entrenched in Article 11 of ICESC. In Brazil, 48% of the population does not have access to sanitation, and the government’s annual investment in providing sanitation is US$ 375 million, or 63% of its expenditure on imprisoned drug offenders.

After exploring aspects of the relationship between drugs, poverty, and violence, it is difficult to avoid the fact that the prohibitionist regime exacerbates structural and situational conditions for the abuse of human rights.

Conclusion: towards regulation and development

This paper has explored the notion that the prohibitionist approach to drugs promotes harm, and suggests that prohibition generates a narcotraffic that relies on violence to solve disputes, promotes corruption, resource displacement and social insecurity, all of which tend to be especially harmful to the most vulnerable members of society.

By unveiling the role of moral entrepreneurs and the weight of economic interests in discourses that shaped the drugs shift from commodities to evildoers, this paper has evidenced how rising claims for control and stringent law enforcement have culminated with the so-called “war on drugs”, irrespective of the human rights violations that it creates. Strategies for fighting drugs targeted the supply side of the drug market, and are especially disadvantageous to producing countries, which tend also to be developing countries with less leverage than consuming countries (United States and Europe, according to UNODC) at global decision-making fora.

Brazilian estimates on drug-related homicide provide a glimpse into how developing countries tied to the global drug market are burdened with drug-related harm, such as high drug-related homicide rates, and a distinct lack of resources for the basic provision of human dignity. Analysis of those features suggests that UNODC policies have been overly concerned with crop eradication and drugs seizure. It also suggests that, certainly in human rights terms, the prohibitionist approach is not evidence-based, and on the contrary, creates conditions for abuses by denying their cause-effect relationship with prohibition itself.

We contend, therefore, that a change in the prohibitionist paradigm is required for it to engage with human rights beyond mere rhetoric. Alternatives to prohibition, however, will also need to heed these findings. For instance, legalization might not be appropriate because the free-trade nature of the drugs business is oblivious to the concerns raised by this paper, especially the gaping void between suppliers and consumers, which is, broadly speaking, a gap between developing and developed countries. Further, legalization would probably leave drug supplying developing countries, which are already experiencing the most harmful effects of prohibition, at a disadvantage by placing the drugs business under the control of transnational corporations, leaving the poor who are engaged in the most risky tasks in vulnerable situations that could lead to a migration from the drug market to other types of criminal activities. Hence, a development perspective is required in order to withdraw from prohibition’s harm without creating further damage and injustice. Regulation, therefore, seems to be the key, for it could combine an alternative to prohibition with development and a new emphasis on education, harm reduction, treatment and social inclusion. For if we continue to afford a higher priority to moral arguments concerning drug consumption than to the human rights violations that prohibition causes, it is hard not to repeat Milton Friedman’s question: “Can it still be considered moral?”


Coincidence or not, it is interesting to note that in China, according to Dikotter (2003), “the commodity that most benefited from prohibition was the ready-made cigarette”, a market dominated by the US and the UK.


A/RES/S-20/2, "Political Declaration", General Assembly 20th Special Session, 9th Plenary Meeting. June 10 1998.


Brazil has the larger population of opioid (635,000) and cocaine users (890,000) in South America as well as the third highest rate of amphetamines’ consumption in the world, according to the 2009 World Drug Report (UNODC 2009).


Analysis of data from National Household Survey (PNAD, 1999 cited by Paes de Barros et al. 2001).


Reports from Human Rights Watch (1996) and Amnesty International (2005) have well documented evidence of police practices such as torture and extrajudicial executions in areas of social exclusion.


Official data from the National System of Toxic Pharmacology Information (Ministry of Health)


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