Deliver us from Evil? Politics of Drug Control and Human Rights

Further Readings
  • This lecture focused on the political players of the war on drugs and how drug policy fails to address the complexity of the drug market, including the social and political . Instead, the drug war functions as a 'one-size-fit-all solution'.

     Rick Lines, co-director of the ICHRDP presented an overview of the international framework on drug control and how it operates in a parallel universe from international human rights frameworks. 

    While premised on the health and welfare of humankind, the United Nations Conventions on Narcotic Drugs (1961), the convention poses drug addition as an  to humankind. This wording, unique in international treaties, poses several challenges to the protection of human rights.

    He argued that one of the problems of the current legal framework is that it is used as "a one-size fits-all approach to every country and it minimizes or eliminates flexibility of countries their own individual systems whether that is related to human rights, excesses or problematic consequences of problematic consequences of drugs.”

    Sahno Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, presented a holistic analysis about what drives each of the actors involved in  drug economy and in drug politics. Farmers, traffickers, and politicians have some stake in the drug war. For example, the incentive to grow coca in Colombia responds to lack of proper infrastructure to transport agricultural goods to the markets. Meanwhile,   'drug warriors', or supporters of the war on drugs, depend on its continuation as it secures their permanence in the government. 

    “It is a symbiotic relation between the drug warriors and the drug traffickers. Neither one can make a reasonable living without the other.Without the war on drugs, drug traffickers are basically transporting minimally processed agriculture products that are cheap to produce… without the war on drugs these bureaucrats would need to find another war.”

    He added that drug prohibition fuels prices of drugs, and hence an incentive to traffic them. Because the drug economy operates in a Darwinian way, only the fittest  and  most inventive survive. This also means that the majority of those in prison are consumers, or consumers who ended up dealing to keep the habit. The higher rank offenders are more likely to elude law enforcement.

    When it comes to problematic drug users, Mr. Tree argued that drug use is often driven by three things: poverty, despair and alienation. A punitive approach does not address these problems but exacerbates them, making the drug problem more intractable. Drug prohibition cannot be substitute “for building a healthy society and that is something we have neglected to do for decades.”

    In his conclusion, Mr. Tree presented a series of recommendations on how to move away from the drug war policy at a political level.

    • Rick Lines has been working in HIV/AIDS, human rights and drug policy research and advocacy since the early 1990s. He is known for his work on prisoners’ rights, harm reduction and the death penalty for drug offences, and regularly speaks and publishes on these and other topics.Rick has held senior posts with non-governmental organisations in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom, and has acted as a technical assistance advisor on HIV in prisons for several UN agencies. He currently works as the Executive Director of Harm Reduction International in London. Rick is a member of the Technical Advisory Group to the Global Commission on HIV and the Law and is a Core Member of the Reference Group to the United Nations on HIV and Injecting Drug Use. He holds Masters Degrees in both Sociology and International Human Rights Law.
    • Sanho Tree  is director of the Drug Policy Project, which works to end the domestic and international “War on Drugs” and replace it with policies that promote public health and safety, as well as economic alternatives to the prohibition drug economy. The intersection of race and poverty in the drug war is at the heart of the project’s work. In recent years the project has focused on the attendant “collateral damage” caused by the United States exporting its drug war to Colombia and Afghanistan. Establishing humane and sustainable alternatives to the drug war fits into the IPS mandate as one of the major contemporary social justice issues at home and abroad. He was featured in the ABC/John Stossel documentary on the drug war and has also appeared on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Currently, he serves on the boards of Witness for Peace and the Andean Information Network. Mr. Tree is also a former military and diplomatic historian and he has collaborated in the past with Dr. Gar Alperovitz on The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (Knopf, 1995). From 1996-97, he assisted entertainer Harry Belafonte and continues to work as an occasional consultant for him on international issues. He was also associate editor of CovertAction Quarterly, an award-winning magazine of investigative journalism. In the late 1980s he worked at the International Human Rights Law Group.
  • British Medical Association (2013). 'Doctors urged to join debate on drug policy', January 15, 2013. Available on

    Tree, Sanho (2009) Drug Policy Reform and Neutralizing the Third Rail of Politics. In Mandate for Change: Policies and Leadership for 2009 and Beyond, Hartman, C.(ed), Lexington Books, 2009. 83-9

    World Economic Forum on Latin America (2013) 'Drug Policy: Untangling the Knot', April 25, 2013. Information on the meeting and conclusions on