Supply side harm reduction

supply side hrEvidence shows that most drug control measures taken to limit the supply of plants used for illicit purposes are not only ineffective in reducing the total amount of drugs available on the global drugs market, but also fuel conflicts and impact negatively on the human rights of the communities involved. The same is true in urban settings where law enforcement tends to crack down on the most visible part of the drugs markets: users and dealers. In this session we will hear several examples from different settings in Latin America to showcase new insights on the subject. Presentations will focus on alternative policy proposals.

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Organized by the Transnational Institute, the Andean Information Network, the Observatory of Illicit Crops and Crop Cultivators, the International Drug Policy Consortium, the Washington Office on Latin America, and the ReverdeSer Colectivo. 


• Fany Pineda, ReverdeSer, Mexico

• Kathryn Ledebur, Andean information Network, Bolivia

• Pedro Arenas (video message),Observatory of Illicit Crops and Crop Producers (OCDI), Colombia

• Pien Metaal, Transnational Institute, The Netherlands

Moderator: Coletta Youngers, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), US

Tuesday, 14 March 2017, 13:10-14:00 | Room: MOE 79, Vienna International Centre

hr supply side event 2017

See the video report of the meeting

See the report of the meeting at CND blog:

Fany Pineda, ReverdeSer. I want to start by thanking the organizers of this side-event and all the people who have assisted. At ReverdeSer Colectivo, the organization I work with, we are happy to have an opportunity to speak of such an interesting subject such as “supply side harm reduction”, which is the main focus of our work. Presently, we have two main lines of work: harm reduction for people who use drugs, which we approach mainly through the Substance Analysis Program, and a process of social reconstruction lead by the families of people who have been disappeared in the midst of the war on drugs, which strives for truth, justice and the guarantee of non-repetition. We use a different name to refer to this subject, a much longer and probably more confusing name, we call it Full Spectrum Harm Reduction from the Global South. We began working within this frame of reference because we identified that the traditional harm reduction frame didn’t allow us to create strategies to face some of the harshest effects prohibition has in our country and our region: those caused by the security strategy implemented to combat drug supply and the cultivation of plants.

The Full Spectrum Harm Reduction from the Global South perspective pulls from the traditional harm reduction framework to tackle the harms experienced by both people who use drugs and those who don’t, recognizing that we need to acknowledge the footprint of the social damages caused by this war.

Mexico has struggled with drug trafficking organizations since the prohibition of marihuana, opium and cocaine at the beginning of the twentieth century. The State has faced these groups with repressive policies since then. At first, concerns centered mainly around health and they expanded rapidly into a discussion on security, a transition which has been strongly supported and financed by the United States. Nonetheless, previous operations were limited to specific time periods and territories. However, in 2006, then president Felipe Calderon initiated the implementation of a militarized security strategy which consisted in the deployment of military troops to engage in tasks that correspond to civil security corporations and the designation of active and retired military elements at the head of civil security institutions. This strategy, Mexico’s contribution to the global war on drugs, has continued during president Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration and it has negatively impacted human rights in our country.

Along with the rapid increase in military participation in national security, human rights violations have risen alarmingly. There is increasing evidence which suggests that torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary executions and forced displacement, are a result of the security policy implemented in Mexico based on the deployment of armed forces to exercise public security tasks without any civilian control.

Since 2006, Mexico has registered over 150,000 homicides, more than 30,000 disappeared people, and more than 280,000 people who have been internally displaced because of the violence. Additionally, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment stated in 2014 that the practice of torture in the country is generalized. Along with the militarization of the security strategy, Mexico has implemented legislative changes, such as the installment of the figure of arraigo, with the specific objective of combating drug trafficking and organized crime. Arraigo is a pre-charge detention measure, which allows the State to detain a person for 80 days without presenting charges. This figure also increments the probability of torture.

In addition, drug laws stipulate disproportionate sentences. While the maximum sentence for homicide is twenty-four years in prison, the maximum for drug trafficking is twenty-five years in prison. But not only are drug laws disproportionately high, drug related crimes are also disproportionately persecuted and the people being detained are mostly people who are a part of the lowest links of the drug trade: people who use drugs, drug small-scale traffics – who are mainly women-, and low-level distributors. This is evidenced by the fact that seventy-five percent of all people detained for drug related crimes were in possession of a minimum amount of the illicit substance. These detentions don’t impact the drug market, but they do impact the lives of thousands of women, young people, people who use drugs and people in situations of poverty who are criminalized and whose families are also deeply affected.

Many of these detentions should be considered arbitrary detentions, because even though Mexico decriminalized the consumption and the possession of certain amounts of these substances in 2009, since then seventy-one percent of the drug related detentions carried out by the Attorney General’s Office were for possession and consumption. The use of the military in tasks that correspond to civil corporations, disproportionate drug laws and the use of  arraigo reveal that Mexico is enduring an unofficial state of exception, legitimized by the objective of combating the supply side of the drug trade. This is particularly worrisome since in declared states of exception International Humanitarian Law is allowed to interfere, but the lack of recognition of an armed conflict has left Mexican citizens defenseless before the mountain of human rights abuses. To further aggravate this situation, congress is on the verge of approving a Homeland Security Law that would normalize the participation of the armed forces in public security tasks, against international recommendations and ignoring the serious human rights violations committed by the army and the marines.

UNGASS represented a key opportunity for the UN to adopt a transversal human rights approach towards the world drug problem. As a result of this process, human rights language was included throughout the UNGASS outcome document and, specifically, in chapter 4. In addition to the serious human rights violations committed in the name of supply reduction, the de facto criminalization of people who use drugs has negative effects on this population’s access to the services that guarantee the human right to health. This right is impacted on three levels.

The first is that the notion that all people who use drugs are drug addicts, leads to health services for people who use drugs to be limited to drug addiction treatment and most are focused on achieving abstinence, leaving out all harm reduction measures. Secondly, many people who use drugs do not access the limited health services at their disposal for fear of criminalization and stigmatization. And third, people who use drugs frequently receive humiliating and degrading treatment, which in some cases constitutes torture, when receiving treatment. In Mexico, as in other countries, civil society has designed harm reduction strategies to face these effects. As I mentioned before, ReverdeSer Colectivo has had the opportunity to be a part of two great harm reduction efforts.

The second is the National Brigade to Search for Disappeared People. One of the largest harms caused by the war on drugs in our country is the perpetual pain felt by the families who have no idea where their loved one is, or even if they are dead or alive. The National Brigade unites families from all over the country to search for mass graves, in order to find bodies which have been buried, pull them back from oblivion, and return them to their loved ones. The Brigade has now concentrated it’s efforts in three moments: two in the state of Veracruz and one in Sinaloa and is planning it’s next actions. The results go far beyond the identification of disappeared people, the Brigade engages victims, perpetrators, authorities and society in general, triggering a process of profound social dialogue, a needed step towards the construction of peace.

In accordance with what I have stated before, we at ReverdeSer Colectivo consider the following measures must be taken in order to reduce the harmfull effects of supply reduction efforts, both on an international and a local level: The Commission on Narcotic Drugs’ (CND) language and strategies must come up to speed with the opinions on the world drug problem’s impact on human rights emmitted by other United Nations organisms and special procedures. The CND must priviledge the use of civilian security institutions and urge countries who use the military to enforce drug policies to deliver an immediate demilitarization strategy. In this respect, the Mexican State must deliver a demilitarization plan as requested by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The CND must recognize that lucrative illegal markets, such as the drug trade, are inherently related to corruption and violence, and that therefore the main supply side harm reduction strategy must be the regulation of the drug market. The CND must recognize the importance of harm reduction measures as a health approach, including substance analysis, and urge countries to implement this service –or at the very least, not persecute those who implement it. The CND must monitor the effects prohibitionist policies have on of human rights.

In order to initiate a serious debate about the design of new public policies that regulate drug use, it is paramount to recognize the failure of the model which places the reduction of the supply as a priority, as it has contributed to the increase in violence, to human rights violations, and the weakening of the rule of law in the countries most affected by drug production and trafficking.

Kathryn Ledebur, Andean Information Network. For a long time Bolivia focused on crop eradication. But the demand for drugs increased, and production did not reduce, with measures becoming more and more violent. Bolivia recently moved towards harm reduction for the supply side. Bolivia has a very low cocaine use rate, the impact was the friction and poverty and violence created by security measures. Since 2004, Bolivia developed a system focused on coca control recognising the traditional licit uses of coca, and accepted the inevitability of the illicit cocaine trade which was demand driven. The coca production in the country has reduced 35% since 2010. This is less than half of what is reported in Peru. The cocaine now passes from Peru to Brazil – so supply responds to the demand. Bolivia works with neighbouring countries, but the core policy is based on generating new indicators. It moved away from arrests, crops eradicated, and looked into coca as a subsistence issue: what each coca growing family would need to obtain a minimum wage. The idea was that with subsistence guaranteed, the families could supplement their income in different ways. When you look at key unions in coca growing areas, 99% of sources of income come with traditional projects with fruit and local products. We are now focusing on the sustainable development goals – access to health, schools, funding or support for productive initiatives, road infrastructure, access to water and basic infrastructure. In this context, coca production can be eradicated. You may not break the illicit drug trade, but you will be providing basic infrastructure and income to improve their lives, and this is the secret to success.

Pedro Arenas, OCDI (watch the video message). We asked ourselves what supply reduction would mean for production. Whether it concerns farmers, indigenous, etc. it means demilitarising the control drugs in production areas. This usually leads to human rights violations, including confrontations with the communities trying to block forced eradication. We call for a desecuritisation of the approach. The priority should be development. We welcome efforts to reduce violations of human rights, but we need a dejusticialisation of the local communities. They continue to be incarcerated and criminalised. If there is a sanction, it should be administrative, not focus on prison. In most cases, people engage in illicit cultivation because of lack of alternative opportunities. Sometimes, there are agreements with the local communities on eradication, but then the police or military come and conduct forced eradication, as a massive contradiction. The peace agreement focuses on voluntary substitution with the promise that the state will pay them and arrive to reclaim the territory. But there needs to be coexistence of coca production with licit crops in a period of transition instead of total elimination. We also need to ensure the rights of these communities as citizens, including providing a space for women through a gender and generational focus – focusing on women, youth, indigenous people, etc. and ensure an adequate sequencing for each of these groups. Eradication should be really voluntary and concerted. What’s most important is a strong focus on reducing poverty, building infrastructure and access to markets, land and development. This cannot be a promise for the future, but a reality. This is why we are promoting a strategy of harm reduction for the supply side.

Pien Metaal, Transnational Institute. Drug markets can be violent, but this is not necessarily the case. The ideological nature of drug policies mean that policy makers cannot think outside the book. One example can be seen in Colombia, as we have just heard from Pedro. The disappearance of coca crops as a preliminary factor of peace cannot work. The market then falls back into the arms of the criminal market. Violent eradication has consequences for the farmers. This scenario might lead to more human rights violations and hamper the peace process. We must find innovative ways to control the production. I have just visited Jamaica, where there is cannabis production for medicinal use. The conventions do not allow production for non-scientific use. This poses problems in Jamaica for the Rastafari communities. The government is now finding ways to respect those cultural and religious rights and reconcile them with the obligations of the international drug control system. This is no easy task, as it gives privileges to some and not to others. Coca control might also have the risk of a top-down approach. The international community could allow Bolivia to export coca products. We must accommodate the needs of the local communities. This is what is going on in Morocco – all attempts to reduce crops by force have not had any results. Applying more force carry risks and may result in unrest. The use of pragmatic solutions means we need to find solutions with the participation of the communities. Governments need to continue to find ways to reduce the harms.

Questions and answers:

Question: Which solution can you promote in countries like Colombia where legal regulation is out of the question? Do you have ideas of policy solutions we can promote right now? What is the community asking for?

Pien: It’s difficult to find a solution. The point I and Pedro made is that there is no easy solution, there is a need for time and efforts from the state so that people can move to different crops. It also cannot disappear entirely, this is unrealistic. The international community committed itself to a very unrealistic goal.

Question: UNDP has done an interesting work showing how the current drug policies are at odds with the SDGs. What do you think are the possibilities to advocate for an inclusion of the drug policy concerns into the SDG agenda for the next years?

Question: What are the potential markets for industrialised coca products?

Question: Central America is experiencing a very high homicide rate. The police says it’s directly related to drugs. How can we push the agenda in countries which are not directly related to drug policy?

Fany: We try to talk to the government and the people as most of the time they don’t link the violence with drugs. We need to show how the war on drugs impacts on their work.

Kathryn: There are tons of coca still sold to the USA for coca cola. This is not an egalitarian process. We need continued research and marketing – Bolivia is negotiating with the international community on allowing the exportation of the coca leaf. The industrialisation will not reach the level of traditional use.

Pien: We thought out different scenarios in which we could act. Coca cannot be exported beyond the borders of Bolivia because of legal constraints. If they want to give some form of face to industrialisation, it needs to get out of the country and that’s impossible unless there is an agreement amongst governments where they agree not to respect some parts of the treaties. But for now, this is difficult since coca is in the strictest schedule of the convention.

Coletta: I don’t want to lose sight of the question on the SDGs. We should not talk about AD, but the SDGs and put drug policy within the framework of the SDGs. We must work through the SDGs – Health Poverty Action and IDPC have produce an interesting report on the topic.

Martin Dias, IEPES. In the Northern Triangle, we have a problem between drug law enforcement and trafficking. In El Salvador, the president has a commercial activity with a trafficking organisation. Drug trafficking organisations are the same as the government.

Zara Snapp, ATS. Is the only option for member states to leave the conventions to try and reduce the harms happening by prohibition and start regulating cocaine, etc. or are there alternatives that fit with the current regime?

Pien. What we came up with is that if there were a distinction between cocaine and coca this might reduce the demand for cocaine – coca is a milder form of stimulant. This might shift demand towards mild stimulant use.

Vera Da Ros, REDUC. When we talk about sustainable development, we talk about production. But in Brazil we have the same problem with people who sell and prohibition. Harm reduction should also focus on this issue too.

See also: Our joint statement on crops declared illicit in Colombia. Joint statement on the implementation of the Peace Agreement in the territories with coca, poppy and marijuana crops in Colombia.