America's War on Drugs is Wrecking the Justice System in Places Like Bolivia


Since America's War on Drugs began in the 1970s, Bolivia has been heavily influenced by U.S. drug policy and punishment, and is today one of the most punitive countries in the world for drug-related crimes. Found guilty of murder in Bolivia? You're looking at a minimum of five years in prison. Caught trafficking drugs? A minimum of 10 years. 

Uruguay may have turned away from the War on Drugs by legalizing marijuana, but such a move pretty much remains the exception to the rule. Many other countries in the Americas continue enforcing zero-tolerance drug policies that have been borrowed from the U.S. and Bolivia, like others, should abandon them in favor of ones that emphasize human rights and harm reduction. It's past time to turn the tide.

Bolivia hasn't always punished drug traffickers more harshly than murderers and rapists. The country did not originally have a mandatory minimum for drug trafficking, but a three year minimum penalty was instated in the '70s, which was eventually raised to 10 years in the '90s. But Bolivia is not alone.

There has been an upward trend in drug trafficking sentences in nearly every Latin American country. A recent report from the Dejusticia Center for Law, Justice, and Society entitled Addicted to Punishment: The Disproportionality of Drug Laws in Latin America details how drug-related sentences have evolved, both absolutely and relative to more serious offenses, such as murder and rape. 

How can we explain this phenomenon? Much of it has to do with the beginning of the U.S. Drug War in the '70s, spearheaded by former President Nixon's zero-tolerance policies and criminal law crackdowns. The U.S. strategy to conquer the war on drugs became the dominant global strategy, and the entire world embarked on a journey of one-size-fits-all criminal justice. 

Three important treaties were created during this time to coerce the rest of the world to comply with U.S. drug prohibition goals. These treaties encouraged stricter domestic criminal penalties and established prohibitory regulations that all parties to the treaty needed to enact. They are:

1. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, which began coordinating international action against drug use and trafficking.

2. The Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971, which expanded the prohibitory framework to include an international system for controlling drugs, both natural and synthetic.

3. The Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988, which provided for a comprehensive international strategy against drug trafficking and related crimes, such as money laundering.

The result of these treaties and America's one-size-fits-all drug control strategy? A dismal failure. Let's continue using Bolivia as our example. Bolivia was party to all three treaties and modified their domestic policies to be in compliance with the treaties. In response to higher criminal justice and punishment regulations, they increased drug-related criminal penalties to a near-nonsensical extent. In the 1990s, the minimum penalty for drug trafficking was 1000% that of murder. In other words, murder and drug trafficking were punished at a 1:10 ratio. Today it has dropped to a 1:2 ratio today, but this still seems high. Is drug trafficking really twice as bad as murder, and deserving of twice the punishment?

Bolivia's penal sector is certainly not flourishing with these stringent punishment requirements. Their prisons are 233% over capacity, since many of the inmates were only convicted for minor drug possession laws following the 1988 treaty mentioned above. Their criminal justice sector has poor infrastructure, and the backlog of prisoners awaiting trail is growing.

In August 2013, Bolivia's Palmasola Prison, the largest in the country, experienced a major riot where more than 30 prisoners were killed and nearly 40 were injured. Analysts at the time blamed the riots on prison overcrowding, a lack of public funding to support the burgeoning prison population, and inter-gang violence within the prison walls.

If this sounds familiar, it should. These are some of the same issues plaguing the U.S. criminal justice sector. Bolivia's prison population resembles the U.S.'s in another way: it's way too high. The disproportionate incarceration of so many people for drug-related crimes is a problem that affects the U.S., Bolivia, and nearly all of the countries that adopted the strict prohibitory regulations.

The time has come to stop exporting failed U.S. policies to the rest of the world. Zero-tolerance criminal justice policies do not work for the United States, and certainly do not work for other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Countries like Bolivia will be best served by reforming the domestic penal system and instead of focusing on compliance with international standards, focusing on reducing the number of inmates, and developing a system of sensible sentencing that reflects the damage of the crime committed.