In time for Universal Children’s Day, a new report shows how the war on drugs hurts children’s health, puts them into the line of fire amid drug-gang violence and leads them into the netherworld of human trafficking and enslavement. The drug war also destroys families when parents are unnecessarily imprisoned for drug crimes, among other downward spirals.
The report, “The War on Drugs: Harming, Not Protecting, Young People,” was released on Nov. 20. It is a project of the Count the Costs of the War on Drugs initiative, a collective of nonprofit organizations and others that aspires to “reduce the unintended consequences of the war on drugs.” The Open Society Foundations; WOLA, the Latin American human-rights advocacy organization; and the Green Party in Britain are some of the initiative’s supporters.
One impetus of the project is the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which provided the basis for the current global criminal justice system’s approach to drug control, involving police and military enforcement as well as punitive responses to drug users, the project states. The seemingly spectacular failure of drug war policies stemming from this legal framework has disproportionately damaged children who have been dragged into the drug world unwittingly or by choice and left them more vulnerable in the end.
As the United Nations gears up for a drug war summit meeting in April 2016, the Count the Costs of the War on Drugs project and other groups, including some governments, are emphasizing that the world’s drug problem is in dire need of new solutions. The report attempts to portray a reality based on “evidence collected” from Mexico, Britain, Afghanistan and the US that can catapult new thinking on managing the drug world, requiring a shift from reduction, abstinence and arrests toward an analysis based on improving the “wellbeing of children and young people.”
For starters, the report’s findings say that while most children and youths do not use illegal drugs, and that most who do experience little to no significant harm as a result, a small but important proportion will encounter problems because of their age. Along those lines, it says that punitive drug law enforcement does not deter children and young people from using drugs or significantly restrict their access to them.
To make matters worse for youths who do use illegal drugs, the threat of criminalization and its stigma pushes drug use into “marginal, unsafe and unhygienic environments,” the report adds, further jeopardizing the health of young people caught up in that arena. Criminalization can also deter people from seeking treatment, for fear of condemnation or arrest.
The report devotes much attention to the lopsided judicial responses to juveniles caught up in the drug world, saying that they are often subjected to imprisonment and serious forms of cruel and unusual punishment. Contending with such injustices is more acute for those mired in the drug scene because they are usually among the most discriminated members of society, lured into low-level drug dealing or trafficking because of poverty or a lack of promising options.
In any country, poorer young people remain at greater risk than their richer counterparts of being apprehended by police. This is because poor youths are more likely to live in rough urban neighborhoods where the drug trade is often carried out in public between strangers. Once arrested, poor youths are more likely to be convicted and to go to prison than their wealthier peers — particularly if they are from ethnic minorities.
The destruction of families — through parental involvement in the drug scene and resulting criminalization that makes a mother or father absent through imprisonment, neglect or death — can present complex generational problems that resist resolution and reverberate throughout all of society.
As an example, the report said that since 2006, when Mexico intensified its military response to drug law enforcement, more than 100,000 people have been killed in violence related to the nation’s illegal drug trade and more than 20,000 people have disappeared. In 2010, it was estimated that as many as 50,000 children had lost one or more parents in the violence and that the numbers have most likely risen.
Locking up adults for drug offenses has deprived many children of their parents or other adult caregivers. In the US, 55 percent of women and 69 percent of men held in federal prisons for drug offenses have children; in state prisons, it is 63 percent of women and 59 percent of men.
The way out of this drug war mess? Decriminalization of drug possession for personal use and the legal regulation of drug markets, the report suggests.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.