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Human Rights and the Drug War

A time to reassess our drug policies and comply with international law.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It provides us with a real opportunity to assert our rights under this internationally-recognized, but largely ignored document. Adopted by the UN in 1948, the UDHR sets a human rights standard by which the policies of all nations, rich and poor alike, are to be measured.

On this anniversary year, groups around the world are striving to raise awareness of these standards and to evaluate just how we are measuring up to them. When it comes to the Drug War, we have found that the United States violates many of its articles. While quick to point a finger at the human rights abuses of other nations, it is time for America to take a look at itself. Once called the "Land of the Free," the US is now one of the world leaders in incarceration rates in the world largely due to its drug policy (60% of federal prisoners are drug offenders, with over 400,000 drug offenders imprisoned nationwide).

Human Rights 95 will be bringing its powerful photo exhibit, Human Rights and the Drug War, to the San Francisco Public Library for a six-week showing, from May 7 to June 19 as part of a series of events that commemorate this important anniversary.

We urge you to get involved and do what you can to demand respect for our human rights. Following is a review of some specific articles of the UDHR that the US is having trouble respecting.

UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Excerpts and analysis)

Preamble: Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of the freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Now, therefore The General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.

Article 5: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

The Drug War has created draconian mandatory minimum sentences and asset forfeitures that are disproportionate to the offense. Federal mandatory minimum sentences put first-time nonviolent drug offenders in prison for five, 10, 20 years or even life, without parole " of-ten for longer terms than violent criminals convicted of murder, rape or robbery, who are eligible for parole.

Article 10: "Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the de-termination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him."

Sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum penalty laws tie judges hands and prevent them from dispensing justice. Physical evidence is replaced with hearsay. They must look at the type and quantity of drugs involved, rather than the person being charged with an offense. In a conspiracy case, each person is held liable for the entire offense, no matter how insignificant their own involvement. No crime need be committed, just mentioning an idea is enough to implicate you in a conspiracy. Prosecutorial threats and back room plea bargains have replaced public hearings.

Article 11.1: Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to the law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.

In Drug War cases, informants (anonymous or known) can reduce or work off charges and even be paid to provide evidence against you. Police entrap people to break the law and have a conflict of interest due to their seizure of personal property for law enforcement use. Under federal civil asset forfeiture law, a person's entire life savings can be seized without their even being charged with a crime. When all your money is seized, it makes it very difficult to hire a good attorney to defend yourself. Medical necessity and religious use arguments are routinely disallowed in court, thus limiting a person's defense capability.

Article 12: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks."

The lines separating legal from illegal drugs are not based on scientific criterion but on an arbitrary moralistic and political agenda. People in the US suffer increasing intrusions on their privacy, including phone taps, invasive urine testing, garbage and mail searches, computer searches of bank records and utility bills, even infrared scanning of homes to see the amount of heat a building gives off. Warrants are issued based on hearsay evidence and served up with battering rams. Employees are subject to random drug testing as a job requirement, with neither probable cause nor warrant. Police sweep neighborhoods and block public roadways to search people and vehicles with dogs. Having $100 cash on your person is enough for police to seize your money as suspected drug income, even when you can prove otherwise. Buying garden supplies from a store under police surveillance can lead to a search of your home. People who fit a drug profile, stereotype (racially and culturally based appearance, such as ethnicity, hair length, political or musical bumper stickers, etc.), may be singled out as probable cause for harassment.

Article 16.3: "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state."

The family is a primary target of the Drug War. What happens to children when narcotics police take the family car, home and bank accounts, then send Mom and Dad to prison for decades on end? How does it hurt children to see their parents handcuffed face down on the floor while angry, armed men in dark suits and badges shout at them and tear the house up? How can a parent support their family from behind prison walls, financially or emotionally? How can an inner city community survive with a third of its adult male population stigmatized by a criminal record and their families traumatized?

Article 17.2: "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property."

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police and informants can keep the assets they confiscate, and obvious conflicts of interest arise. Everything from businesses to piggy banks can be taken. Property of innocent parties has been seized by police agencies without convictions. Forfeiture victims do not have to be charged with a crime to lose their homes, cars or life savings.

Article 18. "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion: This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

The government has prosecuted every effort to establish new religions that involve the use of mind expanding drugs. When the Drug War even infringed on the Native American Church's ceremonial use of peyote, Congress created a special, narrow exemption for it through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993; but the Supreme Court struck it down. The Drug War has effectively outlawed traditional cannabis-based religions such as the Rastafari, Coptic Christians, Sufi Moslem, Sadhu Hindu, etc. Courts routinely exclude all testimony or reference to their religious motives when "the facts" of a case are presented to a jury.

Article 25.1: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services."

The Drug War deprives patients of medical marijuana, an effective, natural healing agent. The DEA forbids health care professionals from administering or recommending cannabis, even when they know it will help ease pain and prolong life. This is also true of certain other drugs. Furthermore, banning industrial hemp suppresses domestic jobs and enterprise in the hemp industries, at an estimated cost of a million jobs and tens of billions of dollars in business. Presidents Washington and Jefferson, both hemp farmers, would today be sentenced to death for growing their acreage of this rugged and versatile crop that the government now calls "marijuana."

Article 26.2: "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for humans rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship. Article 26.3: Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children."

Federal drug policy is one of zero tolerance, to be achieved through stigmatizing and criminalizing targeted individuals and lifestyles. The DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program puts police into grammar schools to talk to children about the private lives of parents and friends. Children have been encouraged to turn in their parents for drug use, which has led to arrests and the breakup of families. In some cases, parents who kept their kids out of the program have been investigated by police. Studies show DARE even increases drug use in some communities.

Article 27.1: "Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."

The Drug War targets subcultures identified as part of the drug culture, The Rastafari, hippies, musical fans of jazz, reggae, hip-hop, house, the Grateful Dead, psychedelic, etc., are singled out for persecution. Police barricade roads leading to political rallies and cultural events, and harass and intimidate participants. Not only are patients denied access to medical use of prohibited drugs such as marijuana, they are arrested and imprisoned for self-medicating. Agencies such as National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) censor science to bias research findings and also block research.

Produced by Human Rights and the Drug War (aka HR95). For more information on our project please contact us at: PO Box 1716, El Cerrito CA 94530, or visit our web site at:

Two books coming soon: Shattered Lives: Portraits from America's Drug War and Human Rights and the Drug War.

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