Drug legalization camp has another reason to get fired up


A prisoner peers out from behind the bars of an unauthorized holding pen in Brazil.


Jimmy Chalk

In April, GlobalPost launched the “Legalize it?” series on Latin America’s burning debate on anti-drug policy. This week, we've rolled out “Encarcelacion,” reporting on the fatally overcrowded prison systems of the Americas.

It turns out, the two issues are tightly linked, and geography is not the only glue that binds them. It’s partly because of the region’s anti-drug laws that it’s in this penitentiary mess.

Peering in from outside the region's narco drama, as the violence spirals it might seem like the Americas' governments are letting drug offenders run amok and doing little to stop them. How else has it gotten so out of control?

Well, that's not true. Governments are waging a costly battle. And many have pretty stiff, if not draconian, anti-narcotics laws. These frequently send drug users, dealers and mules to jail in big numbers that swell prison populations beyond capacity.

“Very harsh drug laws have not only filled the region’s prisons with people charged on drug offenses, but people charged on minor drug offenses,” says Coletta Youngers, a drug policy expert with the US research group the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA.

“The vast majority of people in prison on drug charges are there for low-level dealing or consumption, or mules — the people who are the lowest links of the drug-trafficking chain, if you will,” she adds.

WOLA conducted an extensive study on this situation called "Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America." Data from seven Latin American countries between 1992 and 2007 show their prison populations grew by 100 percent, the study finds. Corrections funding and prison builders did not keep up. 

Youngers says she does not advocate for setting all drug offenders free — but some proportionality in sentencing would help.

“A lot of Latin American drug laws don’t distinguish between high, medium and low-level traffickers, violent or non violent offenders or between types of substances,” says Youngers. “You get situations where people who are mules carrying small amounts of drugs end up with sentences higher than somebody who has committed murder.”

Drug law reforms could help ease the situation in a country like Brazil. At half a million inmates, Brazil’s prison population dwarfs that of any other Latin American country, reports Taylor Barnes for GlobalPost's in-depth series. Drug traffic charges reportedly make up 24 percent of cases of imprisonment in Brazil. (The US, the world's most avid incarcerator, could also take note.)

In Brazil, police turned old buses and horse stables into makeshift detention centers, Barnes reports. That was against the law. Rio de Janeiro has been shutting those facilities down and moving inmates to other jails. That's only deepening the country's prison overcrowding problem.