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Is the International Narcotics Control Board Ignoring Human Rights?

A recent report by the UN special rapporteur on torture charged that compulsory drug treatment centers in some countries, particularly Vietnam and Thailand, constitute "forced labor" camps that engage in "torture." Long-time addiction writer Maia Szalavitz wrote about this in Time last week, and Phil did in our newsletter last Monday. The report is online here.

photo from the 2011 HRW report on Vietnam's so-called drug rehabilitation centers
The issue is not a new one, having been raised by Human Rights Watch in September 2011. HRW detailed forced labor, worker pay getting taken by the centers or staffs, inmates getting beaten, even bones broken, if they didn't comply with instructions.

Nevertheless, in its 2011 annual report, published five months after HRW's, the International Narcotics Control Board had only this to say in relation to Vietnam's treatment centers:

In September 2010, the Government of Viet Nam issued a decree on the strengthening of family-based and community-based drug treatment and rehabilitation services. In March 2011, the Ministry of Public Security of Viet Nam adopted measures to improve the collection and analysis of drug-related data. In June 2011, the Government of Viet Nam adopted the national strategy on drug control and prevention for the period ending in 2020. Based on that strategic document, the national target programme for the period 2011-2015 was developed to address drug-related issues in the country.


The Board welcomes the steps taken in Viet Nam to improve the treatment and rehabilitation of drug abusers and the efforts made in participating in different projects sponsored by [the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC] in that area. The Board encourages the Government to reinforce and support existing facilities as well as to undertake capacity-building in the field of treatment for drug abusers.

The 2012 INCB report, released last week -- more than a month after the special rapporteur's report was released -- offers just this:

The Government of Viet Nam launched its new national drug control and crime prevention strategies in July 2012. The strategies highlight the need for a comprehensive national response that combines effective law enforcement, drug abuse treatment and rehabilitation measures that allow for better integration of former drug dependent persons into society and the active participation of communities in crime prevention.

I understand that any system involving confinement has the potential for abuse, in the best of times and places, and that any one report on a subject can miss the mark. But we have allegations from a respected organization, and now from the UN itself, of systemic abuses, of a degree of seriousness that would seem to invalidate the entire project. Presumably international funding is in the mix at well. So why not even a word about it, from the self-described "quasi-judicial body" overseeing the international drug control regime?

Open Society Foundation's Joanne Csete noted comments by the late Hamid Ghodse, then INCB chairman, at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs last year, disclaiming any role for human rights concerns in the drug treaties or his agency. But that is not the stated position of the other main UN drug agency, UNODC.

So do we have a scandal in the making -- or better yet, an opportunity to reform the international drug control regime?

[By the way, Csete's afore-linked essay is part of the LSE IDEAS report included in our current membership offers.]

UN Report Slams Cruel Drug Treatment as "Torture"

Compulsory "treatment" for drug addiction in some parts of the world is "tantamount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," according to report last month from the UN's special rapporteur on torture and other degrading treatments and punishments. The report was delivered to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Vienna.

drug "rehabilitation center," Vietnam (
Authored by Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez, the report takes special aim at forced "rehabilitation centers" for drug users. Such centers are typically found in Southeast Asian states, such as Vietnam and Thailand, as well as in some countries in the former Soviet Union. But the report also decries the lack of opiate substitution therapies in confinement setting and bemoans the lack of access to effective opioid pain treatment in large swathes of the world.

"Compulsory detention for drug users is common in so-called rehabilitation centers," Mendez wrote. "Sometimes referred to as drug treatment centers or 'reeducation through labor' centers or camps, these are institutions commonly run by military or paramilitary, police or security forces, or private companies. Persons who use, or are suspected of using, drugs and who do not voluntarily opt for drug treatment and rehabilitation are confined in such centers and compelled to undergo diverse interventions."

The victims of such interventions face not only drug withdrawal without medical assistance, but also "state-sanctioned beatings, caning or whipping, forced labor, sexual abuse, and intentional humiliation," as well as "flogging therapy," "bread and water therapy," and forced electroshock treatments, all in the name of rehabilitation.

As Mendez notes, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Office on Drug Control (UNODC) have determined that "neither detention nor forced labor have been recognized by science as treatment for drug use disorders." Such forced detentions, often with no legal or medical evaluation or recourse, thus "violate international human rights law and are illegitimate substitutes for evidence-based measures, such as substitution therapy, psychological interventions and other forms of treatment given with full, informed consent."

Such centers continue to operate despite calls to close them from organizations including the WHO, the UNODC, and the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. And they are often operating with "direct or indirect support and assistance from international donors without adequate human rights oversight."

Drug users are "a highly stigmatized and criminalized population" who suffer numerous abuses, including denial of treatment for HIV, deprivation of child custody, and inclusion in drug registries where their civil rights are curtailed. One form of ill-treatment and "possibly torture of drug users" is the denial of opiate substitute therapy, "including as a way of eliciting criminal confessions through inducing painful withdrawal symptoms."

The denial of such treatments in jails and prisons is "a violation of the right to be free from torture and ill-treatment," Mendez noted, and should be considered a violation in non-custodial settings as well. "By denying effective drug treatment, state drug policies intentionally subject a large group of people to severe physical pain, suffering and humiliation, effectively punishing them for using drugs and trying to coerce them into abstinence, in complete disregard of the chronic nature of dependency and of the scientific evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of punitive measures."

The rapporteur also noted with chagrin that 5.5 billion people, or 83% of the planet's population, live in areas "with low or no access to controlled medicines and have no access to treatment for moderate to severe pain." While most of Mendez' concern is directed at the developing world, he also notes that "in the United States, over a third of patients are not adequately treated for pain."

Mendez identified obstacles to the availability of opioid pain medications as "overly restrictive drug control regulations," as well as misinterpretation of those regulations, deficiencies in supply management, lack of concern about palliative care, and "ingrained prejudices" about using such medications.

New York City, NY
United States

Iran Drug Execution Frenzy Continues This Year

Last Wednesday, three men convicted of drug related charges were hanged in the prison in the Iranian city of Isfahan, state media reported. The prisoners died unnamed; only the charges and the fact of their execution were mentioned.

That's par for the course for the Islamic Republic, which in recent years has emerged as one of the world's most prolific executioners of drug offenders. Hundreds were sent to the gallows for drug offenses last year (a final tally isn't in yet) and nearly 500 the year before that, according to Iranian human rights sources and state media reports compiled by the anti-death penalty group Hands Off Cain. 21 more were executed in January alone, bringing the total so far this year to 24.

It's a grim litany:

  • Five prisoners executed January 30 at the prison in Kerman for "armed trafficking of 53 kilograms and 250 grams of opium."
  • One man hanged January 28 at the prison in Mianeh for selling 890 grams of crack. In addition to being executed, this unnamed man was fined $3 million rials for being a drug addict.
  • Six prisoners, including two women and one Afghan, hanged January 27 in Esfahan after being convicted of drug trafficking.
  • One man identified only as "Ch.P." hanged January 24 at Sharoos Prison for trafficking 1.94 kilograms of morphine.
  • Three prisoners identified only by their initials fined, lashed, and hanged January 23 at Qazvin Prison for "possession and trafficking of narcotic drugs."
  • Two prisoners, "M. Sh." and M. F.," hanged January 16 at Semnan Prison for trafficking 6.732 grams of crack and 1,739 grams of crack and 30.8 grams of crystal meth, respectively.
  • Two prisoners hanged January 6 in Khomarabad for "possession and trafficking of drugs."
  • One unnamed prisoner hanged January 2 in the prison at Yasouj for trafficking 20,050 ampules of heroin and 74,917 "psychotropic pills."

The practice of imposing the death penalty for drug offenses is frowned upon by the United Nations, a stance embraced by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

"UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offenses of a drug-related or purely economic nature," the international agency said in 2010 report (see page eight).

The Iranian resort to the death penalty for drug offenses has attracted international condemnation from the likes of Amnesty International and the Norway-based human rights group Iran Human Rights, which in 2011 helped launch the International Campaign Against the Death Penalty in Iran.

More broadly, Harm Reduction International has an ongoing Death Penalty Project aimed at the 32 countries that have laws on the books allowing the death penalty for drug offenses. Opponents of the death penalty for drug offenses argue that such statutes violate UN human rights laws, which say the death penalty can be applied only for "the most serious crimes."


It Looks Like 2016 for a Marijuana Legalization Bid in California [FEATURE]

If the first day of the California NORML state conference is any indication, most of the major players in Golden State marijuana law reform are lining up behind the idea of waiting until 2016 to try another legalization initiative there. They have some good reasons, but not everybody's happy with that, and some heart-rending reasons why that's the case were also on display as California marijuana activists gathered in San Francisco for day one of the two-day event.

Stephen Gutwillig, Dale Gieringer, Paul Armentano
Richard Lee's groundbreaking Proposition 19 garnered 46.5% of the vote in the 2010 off-year election, and no marijuana legalization initiative campaigns managed to make it onto the ballot last year, although several groups tried. Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington beat California to the Promised Land, becoming the first states to legalize marijuana in last November's election.

Now, California activists are eager to make their state the next to legalize, but crafty movement strategists are counseling patience -- and trying to build their forces in the meantime. The Prop 19 campaign made a strong beginning, bringing in elements of organized labor and the black and Hispanic communities, as well as dissident law enforcement voices, to help form a coalition that came close, but didn't quite make it.

As CANORML deputy director Ellen Komp reminded the audience at a Saturday morning panel on what comes next for marijuana law reform, the people behind the Proposition 19 campaign have formed the core of the California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform in a bid to forge unity among the state's diverse, multi-sided, and sometimes fractious marijuana community -- and to encourage new voices to join the struggle.

For the Marijuana Policy Project, California is a big prize, but only part of a broader national strategy, and one that should most likely wait for 2016, said the group's executive director, Rob Kampia, as he explained its plan to push legalization bills in state legislatures in four states (Hawaii, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont) this year and beyond, but not pushing legalization initiatives anywhere but Alaska in 2014.

MPP is envisioning a big legalization initiative push in 2016 instead, setting its sights on seven states, including California, when the presidential election pumps up the vote. (The others are Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon.)

"There's a big demographic difference between 2014 and 2016," said Kampia. "If we do 2016, it's ours to lose."

The Drug Policy Alliance, another major player with access to the big-time funding that can turn an initiative into a winner, also seemed to be looking to 2016.

"It's up to us how, where, and when marijuana prohibition will end," Steve Gutwillig, a DPA deputy executive director and former California state director told the full house at the Ft. Mason Conference Center, "but the presumption is 2016, more than 2014. We need to run a unified campaign, we need to build the base and do alliance-building among people who are already convinced."

spontaneous fundraiser for Daisy Bram
Those positions are in line with the thinking of long-time CANORML head Dale Gieringer, who has long argued that initiatives fare better in presidential election years.

Even some of the proponents of the competing initiatives from last year are, while not exactly enthusiastic about waiting for 2016, are seemingly resigned to it.

Steve Collette, who was a proponent of the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative, told the Chronicle he would prefer 2014, but could get behind 2016, too, while Sebastopol attorney Omar Figueroa, coauthor of the Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act initiative, implied in his remarks in a later panel that he, too, was resigned to waiting for 2016.

Noting the confused state of California's medical marijuana laws -- "Nobody knows what the laws are!" -- Figueroa argued for either legislative action or a 2014 medical marijuana initiative "until a legalization initiative in 2016."

Not everyone was as ready to give up on 2014 just yet. Displeased grumblings were heard in the hallways, and an earnest advocate for the Herer-ite California Cannabis Hemp Initiative 2014 took advantage of a post-panel question-and-answer opportunity to declaim in support of it.

The most powerful and visceral opposition to waiting came in the form of Daisy Bram, a mother of three young children and legal medical marijuana grower. Bram became a symbol of the cruelty of pot prohibition last year, when local authorities in rural Butte County raided her grow, seized her children and place them in foster care, and filed criminal charges against her.

Despite being counseled to comply with the demands of Child Protective Services officials in order to secure the return of her children, one of whom was quite literally torn from her arms, Bram fought back and eventually won the return of children. But just this past week, it happened again. Another raid in another county -- although led by the same investigator -- has resulted in new criminal charges and her children once again being taken by the state.

Omar Figueroa, Michael Levinsohn, Daisy Bram
"My kids need you," she told the hushed crowd. "If it were legal, they wouldn't have my kids."

Daisy Bram doesn't want to wait until 2016 for marijuana to be legalized, she wants it yesterday, and she wants justice, and, most of all, she wants her children back in her arms. Her brief presentation at a panel Saturday afternoon was chilling, impassioned, and powerful, and visibly moved many in the audience.

[Update: CANORML reported Wednesday that at a family court appearance the previous day in her Tehama County case, the state authorities who are already seized her children seized her personal vehicle, a 2002 Ford Explorer, which they claim was the proceeds of crime.]

And while California is a state where just about anyone can get a medical marijuana card and possession of under an ounce is decriminalized, the case of Daisy Bram makes the uncomfortable point that marijuana prohibition continues to exact a real toll on real people, including the innocent. It's not just mothers labeled child abusers because the grow pot; it's also fathers denied visitation, patients thrown out of public housing, workers who must choose between their medicine and their jobs.

It's a bit easier to be sanguine about waiting until 2016 when you're not the one being bitten by those lingering vestiges of prohibition. As Komp put it when introducing Bram, until there is legalization, "there is a lot of human rights work to be done."

San Francisco, CA
United States

Indonesian Court Gives British Grandmother Death for Drugs

An Indonesian court last Tuesday sentenced a British woman to death for trying to smuggle about 10 pounds of cocaine into the resort island of Bali, the anti-death penalty group Hands off Cain reported. Lindsay Sandiford, 56, cried when she heard the sentence, but had no other comment before being led back to jail.

Sandiford had been arrested upon arrival in Bali's international airport in May, when authorities found 4.8 kilograms of cocaine in the lining of her suitcase. She told authorities a criminal gang had threatened her and her children if she didn't transport the drugs, which had a street value of $2.5 million.

The practice of imposing the death penalty for drug offenses is frowned upon by the UN, which considers it a human rights violation. That stance is even embraced by th UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "UNODC advocates the abolition of the death penalty and calls upon Member States to follow international standards concerning prohibition of the death penalty for offenses of a drug-related or purely economic nature," the international agency said in 2010 report (see page eight).

While Indonesia has notoriously harsh drug laws -- it is among the nations listed by Harm Reduction International's Death Penalty Project as both having and using the death penalty for drug offenses -- Sandiford's sentence was harsher than expected.

Two other Britons charged in the case received lesser sentences (a fourth awaits sentencing), and prosecutors had recommended only 15 years in prison, but judges at the Denpasar District Court said there was no reason for a light sentence. She had damaged Bali's reputation as a tourist destination, they said.

Sandiford joins an estimated 114 other prisoners on Indonesia's death row, most of them convicted of drug offenses. At least 40 death row inmates are foreigners, including several Australians.

Since 1998, five foreigners have been executed in Indonesia, all for drug offenses. The good news is that Indonesia hasn't actually executed anyone since 2008, when 10 people went to the gallows.


Amnesty Raps Mexico on Human Rights Abuses in Drug War

Mexico must take decisive action to rein in systematic and widespread use of torture, ill-treatment, and other human rights abuses, which have increased dramatically since outgoing President Felipe Calderon unleashed the military to fight the country's so-called cartels nearly six years ago, Amnesty International said in a report released last Thursday.

Mexican military displaying detainees (
The report, Known Abusers, But Victims Ignored: Torture and Ill-Treatment in Mexico, documents the increase of cases of torture and ill-treatment by the police and military forces, the lack of effective investigations and almost total lack of prosecutions, and the juridical weaknesses and lack of political will that allow such abuses to go unpunished and even allow testimony obtained through torture to be used to convict its victims.

An estimated 60,000 people have been killed and another 160,000 displaced in prohibition-related violence in Mexico since Calderon made waging the drug war the centerpiece of his then new administration in December 2006. The cartels are responsible for much of the mayhem, but as the violence intensified, human rights complaints filed with federal authorities have more than quadrupled, from 392 in 2007 to 1669 in 2011. Nearly 5,000 federal complaints have been filed overall, and those are just the cases when someone bothered to go through the formality of a process that too often produces no results.

And, the Amnesty report shows, it is mainly just a formality. According to the report, federal prosecutors prosecuted no torture cases in 2007 or 2008, one in 2009, and filed four more in 2010. Similarly, the number of state level torture prosecutions can be counted in the single digits each year since 2007.

"The Calderón administration has effectively turned a blind eye to the 'torture epidemic' we've been witnessing in Mexico," said Rupert Knox, an Amnesty International Mexico researcher. "The protection of human rights has been ignored or sidelined in favor of the government's strategy of militarized combat of organized crime and drug cartels. Across Mexico criminal suspects often face detention and trial on the basis of evidence obtained under torture and ill-treatment while prosecutors and courts fail to question seriously information or evidence obtained in this manner."

Miriam Isaura López Vargas is a case in point. She was arbitrarily detained in Ensenada, Baja California, on February 2, 2011. During interrogation in a military barracks in Tijuana by a civilian federal prosecutor, members of the army reportedly sexually assaulted her, subjected her to near asphyxiation and stress positions, and threatened her in order to coerce her into signing a confession falsely implicating other detainees in drug trafficking offenses.

"I heard a man scream many times, they kept on asking him, 'Where are the guns, where are the drugs?' A bit later I heard 'Take him away and bring me the next one.' I heard them open a door," Lopez Vargas recounted. "They put a wet cloth over my face, when I tried to breathe. I felt the wet cloth, it became difficult to breathe, I then felt a stream of water up my nose, I tried to get up but couldn't because they had me held down by my shoulders and legs… someone was pressing down on my stomach, they did this repeatedly as they kept on asking the same questions."

A week later, she was transferred to Mexico City and held without being brought before a judge until April 26, 2011, when she was charged with drug offenses. The following month, the case against her collapsed, and she was released by a federal judge. She filed a complaint alleging she was tortured; it has yet to be acted on.

The involvement of the Mexican military in the Lopez Vargas is not unusual. Across Mexico,  military personnel performing policing functions have held thousands of suspects in military barracks before presenting them to prosecutors. In this context, there have been numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment while in military custody.

"Federal authorities have shown an absolute lack of leadership to combat torture and ill-treatment seriously at the state level or federal level," said Knox. "The only way to tackle torture and ill-treatment is by ensuring that all cases are properly investigated and those responsible, brought to justice. In a letter sent to Amnesty International, Mexican President elect Enrique Peña Nieto committed to implement policies and take action to end torture, we urge the authorities to abide by their promises."


US/Mexico Drug War "Caravan of Peace" Gearing Up [FEATURE]

Aghast and appalled at the bloody results of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs, which has resulted in at least 50,000 deaths since he deployed the military against the so-called drug cartels in December 2006 and possibly as many as 70,000, dozens of organizations in Mexico and the US announced Monday that they will take part in a "Caravan for Peace" that will journey across the US late this summer in a bid to change failed drug war policies on both sides of the border.

caravan launch at Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, Plaza Juárez, Mexico City (@CaravanaUSA @MxLaPazMx)
Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who was spurred to action by the murder of his son by cartel members in Cuernavaca in 2010, and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) he heads, the caravan will depart from San Diego on August 12 and arrive in Washington on September 10 after traveling some 6,000 miles to bring to the American people and their elected officials the bi-national message that failed, murderous drug war policies must end.

The caravan will be underway in between presidential elections in the two countries. Mexico will choose a successor to Calderon on July 1, and whoever that successor is, will be re-tooling its fight against the drug cartels. By late summer, the US presidential campaign will be in full swing, and advocates hope to have at least some impact on that as well.

The caravan builds on similar efforts last year in Mexico. Led by Sicilia and other relatives of drug war victims, one caravan of more than 500 people left Cuernavaca and traveled north through 15 cities to Ciudad Juarez, one of the epicenters of prohibition-related violence in Mexico. A second caravan left Mexico City with 700 people traveling south through 21 cities. Those caravans helped turn what was an amorphous fear and dismay among Mexicans at the violence into a political movement that has put the issue of the drug wars and their victims squarely on the Mexican political agenda.

"The war on drugs has had painful consequences for our country, such as corruption and impunity," said Sicilia at a Mexico City press conference. "The proof of this is that Mexico has seen over 70,000 deaths and 10,000 disappearances, and this is closely linked to US regional security policies, which have sparked widespread areas of violence, human rights violations, and the loss of the rule of law. The drug war has failed," he said bluntly.

"On August 12, Mexicans will come to the US and cover a route of 25 cities in one month," Sicilia continued. "Our message is one of peace, and our journey will be peaceful with an open heart and the hope of speaking with each other. We believe the harm we live is linked to the failed policies we want to change."

"Regarding policies on the war on drugs, we propose the need to find a solution with a multidimensional and international approach that places the dignity of the individual at the center of drug policy," Sicilia said. "We call on both Mexican and US civil society to open and maintain a dialogue on evidence-based alternatives to prohibition and to consider various options for regulating drugs."

Javier Sicilia on CNNMéxico
For Sicilia and the caravan, drug policy is inextricably tied to other policies and issues that affect both sides of the border. The caravan is also calling for a ban on the importation of assault weapons to the US (because they then end up being exported to Mexican criminals), a higher priority for concentrating on money laundering, an end to US immigration policies that have resulted in the militarization of the border and the criminalization of immigrants, and a refocusing of US foreign policy to emphasize human rights while suspending US military aid to Mexico.

The broad range of interrelated issues is helping build a broad coalition around the caravan. Groups concerned with the border, immigrant rights, human rights, racial justice, and labor are all coming on board.

"Forty years ago, then President Nixon inaugurated the war on drugs, and we've not won the war on drugs -- the only thing we've achieved is being the world's leader in incarceration," said Dr. Niaz Kasravi, with the NAACP criminal justice program. "Through these policies, we've also promoted violence and death for those caught up in the drug war in the US and Mexico. In the US, those who have borne the brunt of it have been people of color. The war on drugs hasn't made our communities safer, healthier, or more stable, but has resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color, a de facto Jim Crow. We are in a violent state of emergency that must end, and we stand committed to ending the war on drugs."

"We emphasize the dignity and humanity of immigrants in the US," said Oscar Chacon of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), "and when we were invited to consider joining the caravan, we identified with it as a cause of our own. We see our issues reflected throughout the caravan. Policies that emphasize militarization and authoritarianism and enforcement and punishment have human rights violations as their natural results. We see in the caravan an opportunity to write a new chapter in our initiatives to highlight the value of respect for all human life and we will use our participation to further educate Latino and immigrant communities about the relationship between policy decisions made in Washington and the sad effects they can have -- in this case, particularly for our Mexican brothers and sisters."

"Prior to coming here, I did not know the extent of the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the families here in Mexico," said Neill Franklin, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "There are so many orphans, so many families being attacked. Families and future generations are also under attack in my country, with drive-by shootings and running gun battles in the streets of our big cities. Most of those targeted by the drug war here are blacks and Latinos; we have many broken families and communities because of these policies. This caravan will unite our people, our pain, and our solutions in an effort to save our sons and daughters."

"This is a historic moment and one of great necessity," said Ted Lewis of Global Exchange. "The caravan arrives between two presidential elections, and that's intentional, not because we have electoral ends, but because we want the message to be heard on both sides of the border. This is a truly binational effort, and it is very important that leaders on both sides of the border take this message deeply into account as they organize in Mexico a new administration and as they campaign here in the US. This issue must be dealt with now."

Also on board is Border Angels, a San Diego-based group best known for leaving caches of water in the desert to help save the lives of undocumented immigrants heading north. The group has long been critical of increased border enforcement efforts such as Operation Gatekeeper, which have pushed those immigrants away from urban areas and into harsh and unforgiving environments as they seek to make their way to a better life.

"Operation Gatekeeper has led to more than 10,000 deaths since 1994," said the group's Enrique Morones. "Two people die crossing the border every day, but they are also dying south of the border. Now, we see a new wave of migration to escape the terrible violence in Mexico, the country of my parents, and that's why we are joining this movement for peace in this historic caravan. We have told both Obama and Calderon that human rights, love, and peace have no borders. We demand peace, justice, and dignity."

"I think this will really have a significant impact," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's going to be a pivotal moment, just a month after the Mexican elections and just a few months before the US elections. I don't think drugs will be a major issue, but it will be bubbling up from time to time."

The caravan will seek to raise awareness on both sides of the border, Nadelmann said.

"Americans need to be aware of the devastation in Mexico from the combination of US demand and our failed prohibitionist policies," he said. "It's also important that Mexicans understand the devastating consequences of the war on drugs in the US -- the arrests and incarceration, the evisceration of civil rights. This mutual understanding is a pivotal part of what we're trying to accomplish."

"I hope the message will come through that change is needed on both sides of the border," Nadelmann continued. "We've seen the failures of prohibition on both sides, but the biggest impetus has to come from the US through legal regulation of marijuana and more innovative policies to reduce demand -- not from locking up more people, but by providing effective drug treatment and allowing people addicted to drugs to get them from legal sources. We need a fundmentally different approach, and this caravan will be a leap forward in understanding the consequences of failed prohibition."

Mexico City

Marking Mother's Day With Calls for Reform [FEATURE]

On this Mother's Day, more than 100,000 women are behind bars in American prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and many of them are doing time for drug offenses. That's too many, said members of a new coalition, Moms United to End the War on Drugs, as they held events last week in the days running up to Mother's Day.

Gretchen Burns Bergman at the National Press Club (Moms United)
"The war on drugs is really a war on families," said Mom's United's Gretchen Burns Bergman. "It is time to end the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs and move from arrest and mass incarceration to therapeutic, health-oriented strategies. Moms were the driving force in repealing alcohol prohibition and now moms will play a similar role in ending the war on drugs."

Bergman, from San Diego, is the mother of two sons who have struggled with substance abuse and incarceration and is a founder of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing). A New PATH has joined forces with other groups, including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the NORML Women's Alliance, Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy to form Moms United to agitate for an end to the drug war and a turn toward sensible, evidence-based drug policies.

The week leading up to Mother's Day was a week of action under the rubric of Cops and Moms Working Together to End Prohibition. The week saw events and press conferences in Atlanta, Boston, New York City, and Washington, DC, in the East and Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland on the West Coast.

"Mother's Day was derived out of an intensely political effort to organize women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line against the Civil War," said Sabrina Fendrick, coordinator for the NORML Women's Alliance. "The reason mothers were made the vehicle was because they were the ones whose children were dying in that war. Women were also largely responsible for ending alcohol prohibition. This is more than just a ‘greeting-card holiday,’ this is the beginning of an institutional change in our society. The government's war on drugs is unacceptable. For our children's sake, the concerned mothers of the world are being called on to demand the implementation of a rational, responsible, reality-based drug and marijuana policy."

Last Wednesday, at a San Diego press conference, the umbrella group unveiled the Moms United to End the War on Drugs Bill of Rights, a 12-point motherhood and drug reform manifesto which calls for "the right to nurture our offspring, and to advocate for their care and safety" and "the parental right to policies and practices that recognize addiction as a disease in need of treatment, rather than a willful behavior to be criminalized," as well as the right to have harm reduction and overdose prevention practices implemented, the right to be free from heavy-handed, constitution-threatening drug war policing, and the right to be free from drug war violence.

Moms United in Los Angeles (Moms United)
"If we stop arresting and incarcerating drug users, think of the number of children who would have the chance to look upon their parents as positive role models instead of having parents who are absent because they are incarcerated," the group said. "We have a moral and ethical obligation to give these children a better chance in life by allowing parents to take care of their families. These parents should have the opportunity to become the productive members of society and role models to their children that they want to be and that their children need and deserve."

The Bill of Rights has been endorsed by a number of religious, reform, and civil rights groups, and individuals can sign onto it, too. To sign on, go to the online petition.

"We are building a movement to stop the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs or are addicted to drugs," the group said. "We urgently call for health-oriented strategies and widespread drug policy reform in order to stop the irresponsible waste of dollars and resources, and the devastating loss of lives and liberty."

It's not just Moms United who is using Mother's Day to strike a blow for drug reform. In Colorado, where Amendment 64 to legalize and regulate marijuana is on the ballot, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is running a television ad featuring a young woman writing an email to her mother in which she explains that she has found her marijuana use to be safer and healthier than the drinking she did in college.

The ad is aimed at a demographic that is both critical to and difficult for the campaign: women in their 30s and 40s, many of whom are mothers. The ad appeared Friday and again on Mother's Day.

"Our goal with the ad is to start a conversation -- and encourage others to start their own conversations -- about marijuana," Betty Aldworth, the advocacy director for the campaign.

And it's not just the United States, either. In mother-honoring Mexico, which marked Mother's Day on Thursday, hundreds of women and other family members traveled to Mexico City on the National March for Dignity to demand that the government locate their loved ones gone missing in the drug wars, according to the Frontera NorteSur news service.

"They took them alive, and alive we want them," the marchers chanted.

While the drug wars in Mexico have claimed at least 50,000 lives, including 49 people whose dismembered bodies were found on a highway outside Monterrey Sunday morning, thousands more have gone missing, either simply vanished or last seen in the hands of armed, uniformed men.

The Mexican government doesn't report on how many have gone missing in its campaign against the cartels, but the Inter-American Human Rights Commission counts more than 5,000 missing persons complaints filed with police -- and this in a country where many people so mistrust the police they don't bother to file official reports.

"For some it has been years, for others months or days, of walking alone, of clamoring in the desert of the hallways of indolent and irresponsible authorities, many of them directly responsible for disappearances or complicit with those who took our loved ones away," the mothers' group said.

On Mother's Day, many mothers in Mexico have "nothing to celebrate," said Norma Ledezma, cofounder of Justice for Our Daughters in Chihuahua City. "As families, we want to take this occasion to tell society not to forget that in Mexico there is home with a plate and a seat empty."

"We have walked alone in the middle of stares and stigmatizing commentaries, and we have been treated like lepers, marginalized and condemned to the worst pain a human being could live: not knowing the whereabouts of our sons and daughters," the new mother's movement declared. "But now we are not alone. We have found hundreds of mothers and we unite our clamor and our love to recover our loved ones and bring them home."

On Mother's Day, the agony of the drug war transcends borders. And the call from mothers for a more sane and human alternative continues to grow, from Chihuahua to Chicago and from Oaxaca to Washington.

Mexico Presidential Candidate Vows to End Drug War

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the candidate-in-waiting of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), said last week that he would end the US-backed war on drugs in Mexico if he is elected president. He said his government would instead concentrate on creating jobs and fighting corruption.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (
His comments come as the region is awash in criticism of US-style drug wars and calls for a discussion of alternatives, including decriminalization and legalization. Regional heads of state will meet to discuss the issue later this month, and it looks likely to be on the agenda at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia next month.

AMLO was also the PRD candidate in the 2006 elections, barely losing to National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon in a hotly contested election. At least in part to strengthen his stature amid accusations of election fraud, Calderon called out the military to fight Mexican drug trafficking organization shortly after taking office. Since then, more than 50,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence, shaking the country's confidence in its institutions.

Lopez is currently trailing the Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) candidate Enrique Pena Nieto and PAN nominee Josefina Vazquez Mota in national polls. In one poll early this month, Pena Nieto had 36%, Vazquez Mota had 29%, and AMLO had 17%. In another, the figures were Pena Nieto at 49%, Vazquez Mota at 28%, and AMLO at 19%.

"We're going to stop the war (against organized crime) and justice will be procured," if he is elected, AMLO said in remarks reported by the Mexico City daily La Jornada. "We are not going to use this strategy because it has not produced results. There will be jobs, we'll fight corruption and calm down the country. We know how to do it, I'm sure," he said.

He also vowed to end impunity and criticized the government's use of high-profile arrests and heavily-covered presentations of captured capos to the media as evidence it was actually achieving anything in its battle with the drug cartels.

"Politicians who want to resolve everything through the use of the media are responsible for the lack of security and violence, because they have not established justice, employment and wellbeing. They look the other way and, continue a policy that produces poverty, resentment, hate, hostility, insecurity and violence; they want to resolve it with wars, threats of a crackdown and PR stunts," he said.

"How are those who have no moral authority, who are dishonest and corrupt, going to guarantee justice?" AMLO asked. "With what moral authority can they ask others to do right if they don't do it themselves? And furthermore they let established interest groups make decisions just like in the past in this country."

Bernardo Batiz, whom Lopez Obrador has named as his attorney general-in-waiting if he wins, added that they want to bring social peace and respect for the human rights of victims, witnesses, and criminals alike.

"We propose to move from a war where there are enemies to a justice system with humane criteria," he said. He also vowed there would not be harsher laws, more prisons, more soldiers in the streets, or "complicity with anybody," a clear reference to the widespread suspicion in Mexico that the Calderon government is cozy with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and his Sinaloa cartel.

While AMLO and company were campaigning against the drug war, PAN candidate Vazquez Mota was doing some drug-related politicking herself. On Saturday, as she filed documents needed to make her the official PAN candidate, Vazquez Mota also handed in a drug test and a lie detector test she said showed she has no ties to organized crime.

The election is July 1.

Iran Executed Nearly 500 Drug Offenders Last Year

The Norwegian-based human rights group Iran Human Rights (IHR) has presented its annual report on the death penalty in the Islamic Republic and announce that at least 676 people were executed there last year. Of those, 480, or 71%, were executed for drug offenses, IHR said.

public mass execution in Iran, 2008 (
The count of 676 executions was based on information reported by official Iranian news, other independent sources, or high-ranking officials in the Iranian judiciary. IHR said that the actual number of executions is "probably much higher" than that figure.

Of the 676 executions tallied by IHR, only 416, or 62%, were reported by official media or high-ranking officials. The group said some executions are not announced by state media, but lawyers and family members were notified prior to the execution. In other cases of "secret" executions, not even family and lawyers are notified. IHR left more than 70 additional reported executions off its tally because of difficulty in confirming details.

Drug offenses were far and away the most common death penalty charges. More than five times as many people were hung for drug crimes as for rape (13%) and more than 10 times as many as for murder (7%). Some 4% were executed for being "enemies of God," 1% for acts against chastity, and in 3% of the cases, no charge was made public.

Situated next door to Afghanistan, supplier of nearly 90% of the world's illicit opium and heroin, Iran has been waging a fierce "war on drugs" against smugglers and traffickers transiting the country on the way to European markets. But much of that opium and heroin is destined for Iran itself, which suffers one of the world's highest opiate addiction rates.

While China, the world's leading executioner state, may execute more drug offenders -- the numbers are hard to come by because China doesn't report them -- Iran leads the world in executions per capita, both for drug offenses and all offenses combined.

Last year, IHR helped launch the International Campaign Against the Death Penalty in Iran. More broadly, Harm Reduction International has an ongoing Death Penalty Project aimed at the 32 countries that have laws on the books allowing the death penalty for drug offenses. Opponents of the death penalty for drug offenses argue that such statutes violate UN human rights laws, which say the death penalty can be applied only for "the most serious crimes."


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