This week Hillary Clinton again revealed a blind spot for the drug war and a deafness of tone towards Latino issues. She decided to brag about Plan Colombia, her husband’s signature international drug policy initiative, which has been a total disaster in one of the most emblematic theaters of the failed war on drugs.
At a campaign stop in New Hampshire, Clinton was asked about immigration. After citing her record of voting to militarize the border and referring to immigrants as “illegal”, she invoked Plan Colombia to show off her hawkish bona fides, saying:
“We have an example of how effective the United States can be. When my husband was president, as you remember, there was a war going on in Colombia by drug traffickers and insurgent rebels. … And we did something called Plan Colombia. Where we helped the government figure out how to secure their country from drug traffickers and rebels. And it took a number of years but now it’s a success story.”
Hers is a colorful revision of history. Too bad it’s not how things have actually gone down.
Plan Colombia – a massive U.S. military and counternarcotics aid package to the Colombian government – began in 2000. A decade and a half and $10 billion later, it has had little impact on coca cultivation, cocaine production or the cocaine trade (Colombia is again theworld’s leading coca producer). But it has had a devastating impact on Colombia and its people.
Under Plan Colombia, US taxpayer dollars have financed gross and widespread violations of human rights. It has paid for thousands of people murdered, disappeared, tortured, raped. It has forced millions of people to flee their homes – fueling a conflict that has resulted inmore internally displaced people than nearly any other. It has funneled monies to paramilitary death squads guilty of some of the conflict’s most heinous atrocities. It has funded Colombian military units guilty of assassinating dissidents, labor leaders, and students in order to silence political opposition and crush social movements. It has paid security forces that murder thousands of civilians and dress them up as guerillas in the so-called “false positive” scandal – which Colombia’s top brass knew about as it happened. It has funded aerial fumigation using toxic chemicals that poison people and environment but fail to make a dent in the drug trade. And it has enriched U.S. military contractors and other drug war profiteers.
U.S. soldiers themselves have been implicated in numerous human rights abuses while deployed during Plan Colombia operations – including allegedly raping dozens of Colombian women and girls between 2003 and 2007.
This is the legacy of Plan Colombia, and try as she might, Clinton can’t run from it.
Yet shamefully it’s being rolled out as a model and exported throughout the region. First it was Mexico, to which the US has given $3 billion in military assistance since 2007. The results have been predictable: murders, disappearances, displacement, torture, and extrajudicial executions have all skyrocketed – many perpetrated by security forces armed, trained and equipped by the US of A.
No, Madame Secretary, Plan Colombia is not a success story; it’s a recipe for disaster.
The United States has reached a turning point in its epidemic of mass incarceration. A consensus is growing across the country – from the White House and both aisles of Congress to cities and states of all sizes – that enough is enough. The nation is finally engaged in a frank discussion of how to get out of this mess.
The momentum is heartening but not nearly enough. We’ve only scratched the surface – feel-good rhetoric, a few dozen pardons – while leaving the larger, unjust, racist system intact.
We must do more. Ending the war on drugs – a major driver of incarceration – is crucial. Nearly half a million people, whose most serious offense was a drug law violation (which by definition means nonviolent) are incarcerated today. That’s ten times the number in 1980. The burden of incarceration falls overwhelmingly on black people and Latinos, although rates of drug use and sales are scarcely different among people of different races and ethnicities.
Here are three steps that local, state and federal governments can take to dismantle the drug war:
1. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. Half of the federal prison population is incarcerated for a drug offense. Most weren’t drug kingpins, but rather low-level sellers, couriers, middlemen. For many, there’s no good public safety reason to keep them behind bars for lengthy periods. As President Obama suggested last month, we need to get rid of draconian sentencing laws entirely.
2. Eliminate criminal penalties for possession of all drugs. Almost 50,000 people are admitted to state prisons each year for drug possession. Tens of thousands more languish in local jails, either awaiting trial or serving a sentence. Instead of arresting and incarcerating them, let’s give them a citation and offer them treatment if needed. That’s what Portugal started doing nearly 15 years ago. The sky didn’t fall – but rates of drug arrests, incarcerations, disease and overdose deaths did. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch argued, “Sentencing reform is fine, [but] decriminalizing drugs would be better” – a policy that’s supported by the American Public Health Association, World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch and many others.
Some cities and states are already moving in this direction. Californians approved a law in 2014 (Prop. 47) that changed six low-level crimes, including drug possession and petty theft, from felonies to misdemeanors – already significantly easing jail overcrowding and saving millions. Seattle, Washington, instituted an innovative program known as “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion,” or LEAD, in which police divert people suspected of certain drug offenses (including low-level sales) to harm reduction based services instead of arresting and booking them. Several other communities have implemented LEAD or are considering it.
3. Eliminate probation and parole revocations for drug-related violations. More than a million people are currently on probation or parole for drug offenses. Depending on their state, many will be incarcerated or re-incarcerated for minor technical violations – commonly drug possession or failing a drug test. This also applies to the almost four million other people under correctional supervision whose original offenses did not involve drugs. Closing this revolving door is vital to turning the tide on mass incarceration.
Of course, ending the drug war will not end mass incarceration. As various commentators have noted, even if we liberated all people imprisoned for drug offenses, incarceration would persist at levels unthinkable anywhere else in the world. Other, more controversial measures must also be considered – including diverting people who sell drugs, who commit property offenses, even who commit violent crimes.
But if widely adopted, these three reforms would make a real dent in the incarceration epidemic – far more so than anything else we’ve tried to date.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.
Recent revelations that DEA agents attended “sex parties” hosted by the very drug traffickers they were supposed to be fighting fell like a bombshell.
Despite the shocking headlines, though, this scandal isn’t really about sex – and it’s much bigger than the DEA. At its core, this sordid tale is about the futility and corruption of prohibition – told through the lens of a rogue agency that represents everything wrong with the war on drugs.
According to a Justice Department report, several DEA agents (some with top secret clearances) allegedly participated in multiple orgies with hired sex workers “funded by the local drug cartels.” Some also received money, gifts and weapons from these traffickers. The parties occurred at the agents’ “government-leased quarters”, where laptops and other equipment were accessible – raising “the possibility that DEA equipment and information also may have been compromised as a result of the agents’ conduct.”
This story made national news because it’s the DEA. But drug traffickers dishing out favors to local, state and federal law enforcement happens every day, both inside and outside of the U.S.
Moreover, the DEA wasn’t the only federal agency with personnel recently implicated in drug war-related crimes in Colombia. Though less widely reported, a much more serious allegation emerged that U.S. soldiers and military contractors raped at least 54 women and girls between 2004 and 2007 while deployed as part of Plan Colombia – the nearly $10-billion U.S. drug war military aid package.
Not one of the perpetrators has faced justice. Committed during drug war operations, these heinous acts should be treated as war crimes.
These are just the latest horrors that the U.S. drug war has unleashed on Latin America – with the DEA often at the center. In 2012, for example, DEA agents participated in a raid in Honduras that left four innocent people murdered, including a teenager and two pregnant women.
For years the agency has been spying on governments in the region, often for political purposes not related to drugs – prompting Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador to kick the DEA out of their countries. Latin American counties are increasingly rejecting drug prohibition, and each fresh episode of war crimes and human rights abuses strikes a major blow to the U.S.’s failed global drug policy.
Then there’s the DEA’s long history of heavy-handed and shady actions at home: itsrejection of science and obstruction of research; its promotion of militarization; its no-knock raids and airline passenger searches; its use of NSA data to spy on U.S. residents and to systematically fabricate evidence; its dehumanizing detention practices; its widespread and controversial reliance on confidential informants; and its role in creating and maintaining a system of mass incarceration.
Just days after the Colombia scandal broke, news surfaced that a DEA and Secret Service agent stole or extorted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bitcoins while investigating the Silk Road online drug market.
DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart herself has been at the center of several scandals, including the House of Death scandal in which the DEA appears to have turned a blind eye to torture and murder in Ciudad Juarez, and the Andrew Chambers scandal, in which the DEA rehired a confidential informant with a history of lying.
All told, the picture that emerges is an out-of-control agency, run amok, literally in bed with organized crime, a perfect symbol for the corruption and impunity inherent in the war on drugs.
The DEA must immediately be reined in and held accountable – a small but crucial step in ending the disastrous drug war at home and abroad.
The drug war has increasingly become a war against migrant communities. It fuels racial profiling, border militarization, violence against immigrants, intrusive government surveillance and, especially, widespread detentions and deportations.
Media and politicians have tried to convince us that everyone who gets deported is a violent criminal, a terrorist or a drug kingpin. But a newly released, first-of-its-kind report shatters that notion, showing instead that the majority (some two-thirds) of those deported last year were guilty of minor, nonviolent offenses – including thousands deported for nothing more than possessing small quantities of drugs, typically marijuana.
The report, an analysis of federal immigration data conducted by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, details how roughly 40,000 people have been deported for drug law violations every year since 2008. That means that nearly 250,000 – one-quarter of a million – people were deported for nonviolent drug offenses in just the past six years. A nonviolent drug offense was the cause of deportation for more than one in ten (11% of) people deported in 2013 for any reason – and nearly one in five (19%) of those who were deported because of a criminal conviction.
Much as the drug war drives mass incarceration, it also appears to be a major driver of massdeportation. Indeed, the report reveals that simple marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation for any crime, and the most common cause of deportation for crimes involving drugs. On average, more than 6,600 people were deported in each of the last two years just for personal marijuana possession, and overall, nearly 20,000 people were deported last year for simple possession of any drug or drug paraphernalia.
By contrast, relatively few of those deported were drug traffickers, let alone violent ones. “Convictions for drug trafficking accounted for only one percent of deportees recorded as convicted of a crime,” the report’s authors note, “while marijuana possession was more than three times that level.”
What becomes of the people who are deported? The sad, simple truth is that they will first likely be disappeared within the (increasingly for-profit) U.S. prison and detention system; then sent back to their countries of origin, where they may no longer have any ties to family or community, may lack basic survival needs like food, housing and health services and may face serious threats to their security. Those who are removed from the country are usually barred from reentry, often for life – no matter if they have family members who are U.S. citizens or decades-long ties to their communities of residence here in the states.
The result, then, is thousands of families broken and communities torn apart every single year.
Because of these grave consequences, advocates for drug policy reform and defenders of migrants’ rights have begun to team up to demand humane reforms to both drug and immigration policies. Central to our demands is that no one be arrested, incarcerated or deported for merely using or possessing drugs – which necessarily entails two major drug law reforms: (1) legalize and regulate marijuana, and (2) stop arresting and criminalizing people for using or possessing everything else.
These commonsense reforms are hardly controversial: recent polls indicate that substantial majorities nationwide seem to favor both proposals. Yet, though modest, they would have a huge impact: sparing tens of thousands of people from deportation every year, while saving tens of thousands more from the anguish of an arrest, conviction, jail or prison sentence, and criminal record; and saving millions of dollars in currently wasted criminal justice resources.
Such steps are critical for dismantling the war on drugs and ending the war on immigrants – a fight that is, in many ways, one and the same.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.
Ending the failed war on drugs emerged as a major theme of the United Nations General Assembly meeting this week, after Guatemalan President Otto PÃ©rez Molina took the floor yesterday to denounce drug prohibition and urge the world’s leaders to experiment with “new models” for controlling drugs.
In his address, President PÃ©rez Molina made a forceful plea to end the insanity of current drug war policies, declaring “that the war against drugs has not borne the desired results, and that we cannot continue doing the same, waiting for different results.”
The Guatemalan leader went on to praise the voters of Colorado and Washington for making history last November with their “visionary decision” to legalize and regulate marijuana, as well as President Obama for doing the right thing and “respecting the voice of the citizens of Colorado and Washington, to allow these innovative experiences to provide results.”
President PÃ©rez Molina also commended Uruguayan President JosÃ© Mujica for proposing groundbreaking legislation “that regulates the market of cannabis instead of following the failed route of prohibition.” The marijuana legalization bill has passed Uruguay’s House and is expected to sail through the Senate when considered next month – which would make Uruguay the first nation in the world to legalize the production, distribution and sale of marijuana among adult recreational consumers.
Apart from the General Assembly, President PÃ©rez Molina held private meetings yesterday with President Mujica and with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key – whose country’s Parliament enacted a first-of-its-kind law this summer to regulate and control (rather than criminalize) so-called “new synthetic drugs” for recreational use.
While President PÃ©rez Molina’s remarks made the biggest waves, he was not the only Latin American head-of-state to call on the UN to end the global war on drugs. Using similar language as their Guatemalan counterpart, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla both criticized the failed drug war in their speeches on Tuesday – and called for new drug policies grounded in principles of health, human rights and harm reduction.
For her part, President Chinchilla affirmed that Costa Rica “joins the call from other States from our region, such as Mexico and Guatemala, to re-evaluate internationally agreed-upon policies in search of more effective responses to drug trafficking, from a perspective of health, a framework of respect for human rights, and a perspective of harm reduction” – a consensus statement that was developed and endorsed by all three presidents and by Mexican President Enrique PeÃ±a Nieto. President PÃ©rez Molina echoed this language in his own speech yesterday – as did Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister JosÃ© Antonio Meade KuribreÃ±a, who addressed the UN on behalf of President PeÃ±a Nieto yesterday, adding that the statement was also supported by Chile, Paraguay and others.
President Santos didn’t mince words when he condemned the drug war’s catastrophic consequences, of which his country has suffered a disproportionate share. He stated: “Right here, in this same headquarters, 52 years ago, the Convention that gave the birth certificate to the war on drugs was approved. Today, we must acknowledge, that war has not been won. And I say this as the president of the country which has suffered more deaths, more blood and more sacrifices in this war.” Santos said matter-of-factly that, were it not for the war on drugs, his country’s half-century-long internal conflict would have ended long ago.
The Colombian president concluded by urging, “If we act together on the drug problem, with a comprehensive vision devoid of ideological or political biases, we will be able to prevent much harm and violence!”
As a starting point, Santos referenced the groundbreaking report issued by the Organization of American States (OAS) in May, which not only discussed marijuana legalization as a viable alternative to prohibition, but also predicted a likely hemispheric trend towards marijuana legalization in the coming years. In a companion report, the OAS also recommended decriminalizing possession of all drugs, which it described as “an essential element of any public health approach.” All three presidents and Foreign Minister Meade KuribreÃ±a expressed their hope that the OAS’s inclusive process and far-reaching report will guide the UN’s special session on drug policy planned for 2016.
This isn’t the first time that Latin American leaders have pushed the UN to undertake a wholesale transformation of global drug policy. At the last General Assembly meeting one year ago, PÃ©rez Molina and Santos (along with then-president of Mexico, Felipe CalderÃ³n) made headlines by calling for alternatives to the war on drugs – and for the UN to consider all available options, including the legal regulation of certain drugs, to reduce violence and weaken organized crime.
All in all, the week’s activity at the UN to advance drug policy reform is a reflection of the unprecedented momentum that’s rapidly growing – in Latin America, the United States, and around the world – for debating alternatives to a drug war that’s increasingly recognized as brutal, unjust and unsustainable. Of equal importance, it’s a promising sign that the necessary political will is finally mounting among world leaders to pursue those alternatives.
The Organization of American States (OAS) released an unprecedented report last Friday that presents the most high-level discussion of alternatives to drug prohibition in history.
This report is a big deal. It’s the first time that any multilateral institution anywhere in the world has critically analyzed the war on drugs and considered new approaches for the future – giving equal weight to options like decriminalization and legalization in the process.
The OAS report doesn’t make concrete recommendations. Rather, the second part of the report lays out different scenarios for what alternative drug policies might actually look like – scenarios which break sharply from the U.S.-led drug war, and which include various forms of decriminalization and regulation.
In describing these scenarios, the OAS is saying we need to put all options on the table to improve public safety and health in the hemisphere – and that means considering the legal regulation of marijuana and other drugs.
Among the report’s conclusions is the need for a “public health approach” to address drug problems – and that “the decriminalization of drug use needs to be considered as a core element in any public health strategy.”
The fact that the OAS – the most important, multilateral body in the region, of which the U.S. is a member – has produced a far-reaching report that was not subject to intensive political censorship is, in and of itself, remarkable. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable.
The report reflects the growing political momentum throughout the U.S. and Latin America for major drug policy reforms. The people of Colorado and Washington made history last November by voting to legally regulate marijuana – a step that, if taken nationally, could deprive violent drug traffickers of their number one revenue source. A dozen other states are considering similar measures, and activists in many parts of the country are gearing up for initiative campaigns in two or four years. In Latin America, Uruguay’s parliament is debating a bill that would make it the first country in the world to legalize marijuana. The OAS report will no doubt provide further momentum to activists across the Americas.
Yet the report is just the latest – and most official – legitimization of a debate that has been surging in recent years, thanks to the drug policy reform movement.
It’s a debate that started with activists and intellectuals calling for an end to the failed war on drugs.
Then the former leaders of several countries entered the debate – most notably the ex-presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Brazil, who united with other international figures two years ago to condemn the drug war and urge a fundamental transformation of global drug policy.
These ex-presidents were soon joined by sitting heads of state, such as Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto PÃ©rez Molina of Guatemala – leaders whose countries have borne the brunt of prohibition’s devastating consequences: extreme violence, endemic crime, rampant corruption, systematic abuses of human rights and the erosion of democratic institutions. These leaders demanded that the international community “break the taboo” on exploring alternatives to the failed drug war, and they empowered the OAS to undertake its current study last April at the Summit of the Americas – where they also compelled President Obama to acknowledge thatending prohibition is “a legitimate topic for debate”.
The OAS has now taken the debate to a whole, new level. The taboo has effectively been broken, and the debate will not stop until the war on drugs is brought to an end.
This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.