01/31/16 Doug McVay

This week we look at human rights and the drug war with audio from Damon Barrett, Director and co-founder of the International Centre on Human Rights and Drug Policy, and The Honorable Mark Golding, Minister of Justice for Jamaica.

Century of Lies
Sunday, January 31, 2016
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon COL013116.mp3



JANUARY 31, 2016


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net.

And now, on with the show. In just a couple of months, in April of this year, the United Nations will hold its General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem. Drug policy reformers, and human rights activists, and harm reductionists, and civil rights people, advocates for women, children, we're all converging on New York in April of 2016 to convince the world's leaders that these drug control policies that we have are misguided, misdirected, ineffective, and must be changed.

One of the reasons why so many in the international community are jumping on board with the need to change these laws is the fact that the current regime of prohibition leads to horrendous violations of human rights. Whether it's a plant substance, or something that was created in a lab, use of drugs should not result in anyone being put in prison, or in being mistreated, or in being treated as less than human. Human rights is an important element in international policy, and yet, it's quite lacking in international drug control policy and indeed in many national drug control policies.

Well, at the DPA conference in November, one of the plenary sessions was dedicated to human rights and the drug war. So, we're going to listen today to two of the different speakers from that event. First up is my friend Damon Barrett. He's the director of the International Center on Human Rights and Drug Policy at the University of Essex. He co-founded that in 2009. He's recognized internationally for leading work in the areas of human rights and drug control with a focus on systemic incoherence between these regimes, human rights and the international institutions of drug control, harm reduction and the right to health, and drug policy and the rights of the child. Alongside his work at the HRDP, Damon Barrett is currently a PhD candidate at the school of international studies and faculty law at Stockholm University. He lives in Gotheberg, Sweden, and he delivered a speech at that plenary on human rights and the drug war, so let's just get straight to it.

DAMON BARRETT: Good morning, friends. I begin in Irish to have a little detour if you don't mind, in the light of events yesterday in Congress. I saw congresspeople with names like Connelly, Fitzpatrick, and Murphy, passing an act that will stop refugees coming into this country. And a hundred and seventy years ago, Irish people fled famine and repression in their hundreds of thousands and came here, and I -- as babies are being washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean, I ask if they've got no sense of history, and no shame.


So, listen, speaking of Ireland, okeh? Catholic Ireland. We legalized same-sex marriage through a constitutional referendum, recognized the legal status of transgender people, and are probably having safe injection facilities next year. So things change, right? These are not things, these are not things the Vatican likes. But, as I speak, there are more than 10 million people in penal institutions around the world, and we don't know how many, but it's likely millions for drug offenses.

Right now, we're going to miss global HIV targets by decades. Decades. Because we flush our money down the ineffective and abusive sinkhole of enforcement rather than investing in harm reduction. We, right now, billions, billions, four fifths of the planet, mostly in the developing world, have little or no access to basic medicines for pain. This is people with cancer, people who have been in accidents or undergone surgery. Right now, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced because of drug related violence, perhaps millions, and crop eradication campaigns. And on average, today, tomorrow, the next day, and for the rest of the year, two or three people will be executed for drug offenses in the world.

So, we could read the human rights indictment of the drug war all day. In fact, many of you have experienced its worst abuses, and you could read your own indictment. And here's the kicker: if this were a trial, if this were that, all of these facts would be stipulated by the other side. Nobody denies it's happening. The only disagreement is what's driving it, who's to blame, and what drug policy reform can do about it.

So that's what I'd like to speak to, and a whole conference could go on this, but, I'm going to focus on the international regime, and, but I -- but through that, I hope there's some resonance with national systems.

So. I know talking about treaties can be tedious and boring, but I want to just make two important points. The first is that international law and treaties matter. They do important things. The refugee convention is more important than ever. But, like any other legal system, there's good laws and there's bad laws, and in this case, we have three drugs treaties which enshrine a certain strategy for how to deal with drugs, and what they require states to do is hugely risky from a human rights perspective.

So let's look at why states have to ban private behaviors, they have to ban indigenous people from doing what they've been doing for millennia, they have to stop religious minorities from pursuing their beliefs, they have to conduct surveillance, arrest people, prosecute them, extradite them. They have to eradicate crops. They have to ban certain forms of expression because of an ill-defined idea of incitement to use drugs. This is what was signed up to. And, it's done and it's all carried out under a so-called principle of shared responsibility. This has been the wording for many, many decades in the UN, and usually used to resist reform. We have shared responsibility to control drugs.

Well, who takes shared responsibility for everything I just listed? Who takes shared responsibility, who shares it for the human rights consequences of what's happening? Ethan said yesterday, everyone went along. Right? Well, no matter what they say now and no matter how friendly some of our governments are, they went along too. And they went along for decades, so everyone, every state, has to answer for it. Because it's too easy to say, look at China, look what they do. Look at Indonesia and who they execute. Look at Mexico and its violence. But if you prop up the system that creates the infrastructure in which that takes place, it's your fault too.

So, I think that recognizing past errors is cathartic and it's important, and that includes governments who maybe now see some flaws in this system and want to change it, they have to recognize their own responsibility in creating it. In the in memoriam, we saw Nils Christie. Well, Nils Christie didn't just refer to drugs as a good enemy. He said it was a "perfect enemy." Because a perfect enemy sets up an extraordinary threat that requires extraordinary responses. It doesn't ever die. It never goes away. And it's a moving target. So we had opium, we had marijuana, we had cocaine, crack, novel psychoactive substances, and so on.

And the thing is, this is a huge human rights problem because if you identify an extraordinary threat, point the finger at who's to blame for it, human rights abuses are coming, and they're exceptionally easy to justify.

And, a final point about a perfect enemy. The extraordinary responses should not be those that threaten the powerful. So, it helps to justify the abuses if the victims are minorities. It helps if they're in the global south, and connecting the dots, it really helps if they're poor. And that's what we have.

Today in fact, I'm going to a film screening. There's a fantastic man called Albie Sachs, who's speaking. He was a judge on the constitutional court of South Africa, and before that an anti-apartheid freedom fighter. Now, in 2002, he wrote a wonderful dissent in a case about cannabis use among the Rastafari. The majority of the court said that a religious exemption for this already maligned religious minority would threaten the broad prohibition that was in place, and it would undermine South Africa's ability to live up to its treaty obligations.

Sachs said, no, no no no. This goes against the tolerance of diversity that is central to the entire constitutional project. And, and this is important, it represented a thumb on the scales for ease of law enforcement. Now, that for me is an important lesson, because that's exactly what the UN drug control treaties are. And importantly, that's what they were intended to be, especially the drug trafficking convention. It was intended to make enforcement easier.

And this, for me, is an enormous human rights problem, because part of the human rights movement is to resist the arbitrary, capricious overreach of state power into our lives, and the treaties, in many ways, legitimize that, make it stronger in international law. And that's a major problem for these treaties, and I think a taboo, if we're going to break them, that likely wouldn't come up at the UNGASS next year.

If the treaties, and if drug control is a thumb on the scales for ease of law enforcement, then our job in solidarity is to put all of our weight on the other side of the scales, surely. And doing that requires considerably more than arguments about personal freedom. It requires considerably more, because a person -- in fact, because I mentioned it, in apartheid South Africa, they used to say "No freedom without bread, and no bread without freedom." A starving person is not free. A person working three minimum wage jobs is not fully free. When people's life chances, their opportunities are so curtailed by poverty, they are not truly free, and I'm talking of course about economic and social rights, not just civil rights for what we do, and how important it is.

You know, even if we look at drug dependence, there was a time when people thought addiction, if we want to call it that, was all about the dependence producing properties of substances. And we know now that's not the case. We know there's a role, but there's so much environmental and social factors going into that, and economic and social rights legislate better for that, better for that than any drug law can.

So, personal freedom is really important, but not enough, and marijuana reform is important, but not nearly enough, and you know what? Drug policy reform, I don't think, is enough. Because the damage the drug war has done is so far reaching, and the causes of so much of things we care about, that lead us into this movement, have something to do with something else, so, Ethan I think yesterday asked, you know, how do we know when we've won, or what does victory look like? I don't know, but I do know this: I won't back off on human rights. I won't do that, so I'll stick to my principles. I also know this, that once the drug war gets out of the way, we're going to have so much more left to do in solidarity with others, but our job will be a lot easier than it currently is.

Now, I began 170 years ago, I'm going to go back further. According to the Spanish artist Goya, the sleep of reason produces monsters. Or as he clarified, imagination without reason will bring about impossible monsters. Now, people stood at this podium yesterday and described things that happened to them that should be impossible in a free society. That should be impossible. Life without parole for a nonviolent offense, this should be impossible. But the imagination of a drug free world has brought about its impossible monsters. But I think that HIV made a big noise and started to wake up reason in drug control, and harm reduction has become like that little buzzing alarm clock on snooze mode, reminding reason every three minutes or so to wake the hell up.

And I think that human rights, the human rights consequences of the drug war now, is more like a fire alarm, and there's no sleep anymore possible. And reason has to not only wake up, but stand up. And, you know, Goya's image was actually imagination and reason combined will bring about wonders. So I think that if we can campaign for a life of dignity for everybody, in solidarity with them, and if we reject state repression in the name of social policy and if we reject the legitimization of that level of state power through international law, then I think we combine our reason, everything we know from all of these decades, with our imagination for the world we want, and in that way I think we'll have impact beyond our drug strategies, and for the human rights movement way beyond this room.

So that's what I have to say, and just, I should say that, England -- or English, is in the house. So thank you very much. Ireland is in the house, so go raibh maith agaibh, and Sweden is in the house, so tack så mycket.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Damon Barrett speaking at the Drug Policy Alliance conference on the topic of human rights and the drug war. Damon of course is the director of the International Center on Human Rights and Drug Policy. He is a PhD candidate at the School of International Studies and Faculty Law in Stockholm University, and he's just brilliant.

You're listening to Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.Net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Now, let's continue with our look at human rights and the drug war. We're going to listen now to Minister Mark Golding. Minister of Justice Senator The Honorable Mark Golding, to give him his official title. Mark Golding is the Minister of Justice for the Government of Jamaica. He was appointed to Jamaica's senate by the leader of the opposition in September of 2007. He served as spokesperson on industry and commerce for the opposition until May of 2011, then he became the Shadow Minister for Justice, and -- for my American listeners, Shadow Minister for Justice means he's part of the opposition party, but if the opposition party were to get in power, then that's the guy who would become the Minister of Justice, as they proved, because in 2012, his party took power, and he was appointed Minister of Justice.

MARK GOLDING: Greetings, everyone. Jamaica in the house. I just want to thank the Drug Policy Alliance for putting on this conference again, and for inviting me to be part of it, and just want to big up and thank the speakers who came before me, who have been so amazing and wonderful, let's have a round of applause for them. Yeah.

Jamaica has been on the receiving end of the drug wars, you know? The war against drugs meant for Jamaica that we had legislation in place that was very rigid, inflexible, complete prohibition in relation to drugs, and in particular in our context, cannabis, marijuana, ganja herbs, that are really part of the fabric of our society. So the effect of that has been that we have had ganja herbs being a source of continuing antagonism between the youth of the country and the state, through law enforcement. And when I came into the position I hold now, in 2012, it was in a sense fortuitous because a window was opened in the United States of America, which of course had been the main agent pursuing the war against drugs.

So, that window was opened when the current administration in the US essentially adopted a kind of hands-off posture towards cannabis insofar as it affected US states and the rights of US states to pursue their own, as it were, domestic policies in relation to cannabis and we have seen what has happened in Colorado and Washington and elsewhere. We interpreted that in Jamaica as a window of opportunity to make a move, after being as it were frozen for decades, where we felt very vulnerable to the negative consequences of our attempting any kind of reform of our ganja laws in Jamaica.

So, that was really an important window for us, and we kind of jumped through the window and came up with a legislative reform, which has been quite far reaching, but before I go into that, I just wanted to also mention the context in which this reform has become necessary. So, Jamaica's a place where ganja is grown, all around the island, by farmers, typically small farmers, persons who are not privileged members of society, often have limited access to education and so on. Ganja is a sacrament to the Rastafari community. Rastafari is a spiritual movement, which began in Jamaica in the early part of the last century, and which has been oppressed from its -- from it became, came into existence, it has really been the subject of oppressive behavior by the state.

So, their first community, at a place called Pinnacle, was destroyed by the police in the early 1950s. There was a horrible incident in the 1960s at a place called Coral Gardens, where again the state and people who were infected by a sense of fear and loathing towards the community, basically carried out various atrocities on the community. In Kingston, a place called Back O' Wall, which was a very poor community where Rastas had moved to from other communities where they'd been thrown out, were -- it was bulldozed to create inner city housing and so on.

So, the Rasta community in Jamaica has been at the forefront of the campaign for the legalization of herb. And, so, in this reform, we saw it necessary to create a special space for the Rastafari community as well. So, we are in a situation where up until this year, roughly 15,000 cases a year came into our over-burdened court system for personal use of cannabis. Youths who were largely impacted by this were often arrested, treated roughly by the police or worse, and ended up with a criminal record. And the effect of a criminal record was limited employment opportunities after that, limited travel opportunities with visas and so on being denied, and it was a real human rights issue for us in this, in our country.

So, the first thing we did was in 2014, we amended our criminal records legislation to provide that personal use would no longer attract a criminal record in Jamaica, and to provide for automatic expungement of all persons in the past who had a criminal record for personal use. And many thousands of people are in a position to benefit from that.

Then, we sort of analyzed the treaties, and saw what space there was under the treaties from a technical legal standpoint for us to have some policy room for maneuver. And so what we have done is, the constitutional rights of freedom of religious expression, we have used this as a basis for saying that Rastafari people, who for the first time are recognized and in a public statute of Jamaica, have a right to possession and use of ganja for their sacrament. They're also -- yes. They can apply also for -- they can apply for their places of worship to be designated as effectively exempt spaces where they can use their herbs, and for lands on which they can cultivate their herbs for sacramental use. And we've also come up with a concept of an exempt event, which is an event for the primary purpose of celebration of the Rastafari faith, and we had the first exempt event last weekend in Negril, where a Rastafari Roots Fest was held, a four-day festival in Negril, in association with High Times Magazine for the Jamaica Cannabis Cup. Yes.

And I am kind of proud that, to have signed that exemption order and to have seen that festival take place in Jamaica, which I think is the start of many more to come, and I would urge everyone, next time, if you can, come down to Jamaica and enjoy the festival, please do. You know?

We're also, we've created a cannabis licensing authority to create a regulated medical marijuana and therapeutic marijuana, and industrial hemp industry for Jamaica. And a key to the success of that industry is going to be how to include the little man in it, and the small farmer in it, and those who have borne the brunt of the war against drugs for decades. You know? And we at the same time, being a state governed by the rule of law and I'm part of the government, so, you don't know, I have to be careful, but we are trying to balance that imperative with our obligations to comply with the rule of law, and our obligations as signatories to the treaties. It's a difficult balance to strike, because those treaties are not really designed for, as has been said already, with the human rights and social rights and economic rights of people in mind.

So, but, give thanks to the idea of flexibility, which has been propounded by the US government in terms of their approach to interpreting what the treaties require, and in fact I'm just coming from Norway, at a conference where the EU rep at that conference read from a statement, which she said represents the EU position, where basically they've adopted this idea of the treaties having substantial flexibility in them for allowing national states to design their own policies around that.

Now, I must tell you, I have some disquiet with this whole question of flexibility, though obviously it has benefits for persons and countries that are trying to chart a space for themselves in this area. But truth is that the treaties are, they say what they say, and for us to kind of pretend that they don't say what they say, and that we can interpret them more or less how we'd like to, is convenient, but it doesn't really uphold the rule of law, or an honest approach to the issue.

So, this UNGASS that's coming up next April. I don't know what will transpire there, but I would love it to be one in which we have strong mobilization towards reform of the treaties that will allow national states to have more honest, open flexibility around designing their rules in a way that suits their people, and respects the human rights, social rights, economic rights, of their people. So I was very happy to hear about the registration opportunity to join with a civil society movement that will try and bring some momentum around having the UNGASS be something meaningful, and where the states that are implacably opposed to reform will see that there is a great wave of people all around the world who want to see and are demanding a better way forward than what we've had in the past with all the suffering that the failed policies of the past have inflicted on people, especially poor people, black people, and other dispossessed people around the world.

So, we're not going to see any, I think, radical change at the UNGASS as such, but I think that if it can be the platform for an, hopefully, awareness and acceptance that there does need to be a review of these treaties, and these treaties don't have any provision in them for review, unlike modern treaties, which have provisions in them where they have a system for reviewing themselves. These treaties have no system for reviewing themselves in them. So it is a tough process to review them, and to see change, but we are committed to that, and we believe that it's necessary, and it will be increasingly obviously untenable for Europe and the US and other countries to pretend that the treaties are all right, and they work fine, because they don't.

And so, you know, we need to move together, civil society and those governments that want to see reform, we need to move together and really put the pressure on to see an acceptance that there needs to be a review of these treaties so that we can come up with a better solution, a better system of governance, for these substances called drugs.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to just thank you all for hearing what we had to say today, I want again to big up all the people who spoke before me, who were so excellent. I feel humbled and inadequate to be hear, but I give thanks nonetheless. Bless I.

DOUG MCVAY: That was The Honorable Mark Golding, Minister of Justice for the Government of Jamaica, speaking at the Drug Policy Alliance's international drug control conference in November of last year. He was speaking on the topic of human rights and the drug war.

But for now, that's all the time we have. Thank you for listening. This is Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

We'll be back next week with thirty more minutes of news and information on drug policy and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.